In July this year, a police officer in Buckeye, Arizona came into contact with a young boy with autism, and completely mistook the behaviour he saw. The end result was a young man with some unpleasant injuries, an investigation, and the predictable social media outcry. This has been followed up by an article by none other than Steve Silberman, the author who has almost single-handedly reframed the way in which we think about autism. His article, published in the New York Times, called for police to receive training in autism, on what to look for and how to react to it.
The article itself was posted on Twitter. Following that, a prominent mental health commentator who happens to be a police officer here in the UK replied, suggesting that there are literally dozens of mental health and learning disability conditions that can present in similar ways to autism, and that to train frontline police officers to recognise all of them is such a huge task as to be unrealistic.
It’s relatively easy to see his point. After all, police officers are not paramedics. Nor are we lawyers, mental health professionals, psychiatrists, doctors or pharmacists. We can’t possibly be trained in everything, and even if we were to try, we’d probably spend all of our time in a classroom instead of doing actual police work. It’s unfair to criticise the police for not knowing about something when there’s too much to know. So if indeed this is the case, why bother at all?
The answer is because it matters. People on the autism spectrum account for at least 1% of the population here in the UK, which is a greater number* than it might sound. That means that pretty much every police officer in the country will almost certainly have come into contact with someone with autism at some point in their career, and will do so again. And despite the comparison given, autism is not a mental health problem. Nor is it a learning disability. It’s a neurological difference, a point many of us on the autism spectrum wearily mention almost on cue, having had to do so many times before.
It matters because the way in which we, as police officers deal with autistic people can have a profound impact on the rest of their lives. It matters because a simple appreciation of how the majority of autistic individuals behave is all it takes to avoid outcomes similar to that which occurred in Buckeye.
We don’t need to be experts on autism – a simple working knowledge of how we might moderate our behaviour is all we as police officers need. And yes, once you’ve met one person with autism you’ve met one person, but we’re more similar than we are disparate.
It’s for these reasons that the NPAA is delighted that many police forces in the UK are designing and delivering training for frontline officers in how to recognise the patterns of behaviour and idiosyncrasies that come with autism. We will continue to support those within the law enforcement community whose lives are touched by autism.
Why bother? Because it matters.
NPAA Communications Officer
*Based on the current population and recent data from the US indicating a 1 in 68 incidence of autism, there could be nearly a million people in the UK on the autism spectrum.