‘You can’t have an autistic cop with a gun!’

T/Inspector Gav Skevington

‘You can’t have an autistic cop with a gun.’ Temporary Inspector Gav Skevington has heard it many times before.

Gav is Nottinghamshire Police’s Chief Firearms Instructor. He’s also autistic and is sharing his story for Neurodiversity Celebration Week to help break down barriers, and to support neurodivergent colleagues and those who want to enter policing.

Gav said: “I’m the Chief Firearms Instructor and I’m autistic, so straight away people’s alarm bells go and they say ‘You can’t have an autistic cop with a gun’.

“Well, they’re wrong.

“Exactly the same as neurotypical people, neurodivergent people are fit for roles as long as we’re given the right opportunities and support.”

Gav added: “If it wasn’t for the way my brain works I wouldn’t have been as good an Operational Firearms Commander as I was.

“I can look at problems in a different way.

“There are the positives and negatives of every element of it.

“I can switch off emotion really well, which for a job that’s high risk is brilliant.”

Gav said he always knew he was autistic but it wasn’t until later in life that he was diagnosed.

Describing himself as being ’36 years in denial’, he said it was only when his children displayed signs that he decided to do something.

“I did everything to build a mask around me where I’d fit in and I didn’t have to talk about it,” he said.

“It wasn’t until my own children started to show signs that I had to look in the mirror and say to myself to get it sorted and stop being selfish.

“When I disclosed it to work, I sat in the car park for ages trying to work out how to say it. I looked in my rearview mirror and said ‘I’m Gav and I’ve got autism’. Saying it to myself was a huge step for me.

“I remember going to my own Chief Firearms Instructor and saying ‘This is the diagnosis I’ve got’ and expecting to lose my firearms authorisation. But I didn’t.

“I got overwhelming support, which was brilliant for me.

“The moment that happened was a turning point for me because I could say I’d achieved all of this in the firearms world – I was five years in firearms at that point.

“I’d been an Operational Firearms Commander, a Tactical Rifle Officer, an instructor, and I did that despite, or because of the fact I’m neurodivergent.”

Gav is part of Nottinghamshire Police’s Neurodiversity Working Group. It’s been running for three years.

“It’s chaired by Inspector Nick Wood, who comes from a dyslexia point of view,” Gav said.

“We’ve got Inspector Adam Pace, who comes from the managerial support side. I come from an autism point of view.

“We’re trying to find the best ways we can encourage neurodivergent members of staff to come forward, and provide them the necessary support.

“It’s not just neurodivergent individuals, or people who think they are, or who are going through that process who come to us. We’re getting line managers coming for some advice.

“More people are open and willing to talk about it.

“We want to lead from the front and share those experiences that will break down people’s natural barriers.”

Gav said that more people in the Force were contacting the group for advice, and that it was trying to build a network of support for officers and staff.

“If I go to give a talk, afterwards I’ll have a flurry of emails, which is great,” he said.

“Our group’s concern is that we’re doing this on top of the day job and will have people reaching out to us on the verge of crisis or going through bad times.

“We’re trying to build those mechanisms to show that as a neurodiversity group we’re here to support you, to guide you through a diagnosis process and those sorts of things.

“And it’s then signposting to other services like wellbeing support, EAPs, so that we don’t hold it all. It’s joined up.”

He said that people could also turn to national groups – the National Police Autism Association, the ADHD Alliance, and the Police National Dyslexia Association.

“If people don’t want to talk in their own Force there are those national forums where they can get advice,” he said.

“If it wasn’t for the way my brain works I wouldn’t have been as good an Operational Firearms Commander as I was.”

T/Inspector Gav Skevington

The Nottinghamshire Police’s Neurodiversity Working Group’s work has led to Gav being invited to sit on the College of Policing’s Neurodiversity in Specialist Operations Policing Group.

And he said that policing needed ‘central guidance’ that Forces could draw on and would provide consistency across the service.

“I’ve spoken to Forces who have two people in a room who are the neurodiversity contact on top of their day jobs,” he said.

“We’re lucky here. Yes we do it on top of the day job but there are a number of us who can spread that out.

“Other Forces have huge groups and have conferences and events, and it’s that inconsistency. We need a central drive.

“In Nottinghamshire we have a really good connection with chief officer level. Deputy Chief Constable Steve Cooper welcomes the Neurodiversity Group into a bi-monthly meeting where we talk things through.

“Having that connection to the ‘top corridor’ is really good because you feel listened to and empowered.

“But I think that on a national level we need that input to steer us in the right direction.”

Away from policing, Gav runs a clothing line and writes fiction books, which are about empowering people.

“Over 18 years of policing I spent the first 13 trying to fit in, trying to fit that mould and expectation of what Gav the firearms cop should be,” he said.

“Then there’s the little man inside me saying that’s not me.

“It’s only as I’ve got more confident that I’ve been able to change that.

“The mask still goes on but I am a lot more comfortable with me as a person.

“I’ve had to challenge that, realise my blockers, the biggest one of which is me.

“My fiction books are about characters who have to accept themselves and realise they are their only limit.

“If you internalise it, you’re the one stopping yourself.” ∎

This article was originally published on the Police Federation of England & Wales website as part of Neurodiversity Celebration Week – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

My diagnosis diary (part 3)

by Superintendent Paul Burrows
Disability Lead | Police Superintendents’ Association

As I write this, my third diagnosis blog, I’m still waiting to hear back from the assessment clinic for a date when I can have a chat! Even though I am going private, it’s like I can’t give my money away. Regardless of this minor hiccup, it gives me an opportunity to discuss my upcoming assessment for ADHD. Like my blog on autism, I will make you aware of the questions posed; if nothing else, it will give an insight into the process and how someone like me thinks and acts.

Supt Paul Burrows

The Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale comes in two parts. Part A has six questions covering my behaviours in the last six months. If I score four or more then I should proceed to Part B which has 12 further questions.

The way to score a point on each question varies, though the scale remains the same: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often or Very Often. At the risk of giving the punch line away, I scored six out of six on Part A.

To the questions…

Question 1: How frequently do I struggle wrapping up the final details of a project once the challenging parts have been done? Well, absolutely, always! I love the deep thinking required to understand a project and planning a course through to delivery. But once the hard bits have been done, my interest can wane. I am not a completer finisher. Project end reports and benefits realisation reports are all a struggle. I’ve done the heavy lifting, it is time to pass over to someone with finesse!

Question 2: Do I struggle to get things in order when I complete a task that requires organisation? This would be a very weak yes! I spend a lot of time thinking about a project, but also certainly find myself obsessing over whether I am presenting information in a logical order. My view on what a logical order is, isn’t always the same as others!

Question 3: Whether I struggle remembering appointments or obligations. I absolutely struggle to remember appointments and must use my phone to constantly set diary reminders, even for in an hour’s time. I am not sure if this is down to age or just whether I get lost in a task with my hyper-focus (one of my autism traits). I am however time-obsessed, so the thought of missing something haunts me. I have said on far too many occasions that if I am late, you know something has happened. I have to remind myself all the time of where I am meant to be, but I do not miss obligations – if I say I am going to do something, I will – whatever it takes. I am loyal to a fault and the thought to letting someone down just couldn’t be countenanced.

Question 4: Do I avoid starting projects that require a lot of thought? Yes and no! I tend to map projects out in my head before I start and always start well in time, so am usually well ahead of any timetable. Compared to others do I prevaricate? Probably not. But I do work to a different regimen. If I am set a task, it needs completing yesterday, so even today is too late. I think this is a perverse mash-up between my autistic self and (possible) ADHD self.

Question 5: Do I fidget with my hands or feet when I sit down for a long time? Well in my world, five minutes is a long time, so yes absolutely! This is one of the key learning points I feel both the police service and society as a whole needs to take on board. Sitting in meetings for hours without a break may feel time efficient; however, I would argue it is not time effective. When I run neurodivergence training with colleagues, we will set a timer and break every 25 minutes for five minutes. It is simply amazing how much more engaged everyone is. Why don’t we do this in meetings? The more self-reflective question is, when I chair meetings why don’t I do it? I think the only answer is that I still feel it is not something that is yet widely acceptable.

Further to this is seating position, doodling and leg bouncing. I will always, given the choice, sit at the back of a room or to the edge of a room so I’m not hemmed in. This is so I can twist and turn in my seat as much as I need to without distracting people. Others will displace energy by doodling. I’m not a doodler myself; for many however, doodling is a sign they are paying attention to what is being said, not the opposite. It’s like fidget-spinning: these devices will be deployed to retain focus, not as an indicator that I am not paying attention. My fidget-spinner comes in the form of solitaire. If I’m commanding a football match and I start playing solitaire, it means that I have 100% focus on what is happening operationally, the distraction distracts the distractions – I hope that makes sense.

As to the leg bouncing: the problem many neurodivergent people face is that it is not yet socially acceptable to get up and walk around in meetings, or indeed have meetings that are held outside whilst walking around. Noisy places can also be really calming – it’s like white noise. I have a friend who will hold most of her meetings in coffee shops because this is where she best concentrates. I don’t feel however that we are anywhere near the position yet where this type of activity is seen as being normal.

Question 6, the final question from the initial set: how often do I feel overly active and compelled to do things, as if driven by a motor? I am quite simply metronomic. I must have a purpose each day. I need a list of jobs to do, and I can’t relax until they are done. I can’t abide prevarication – why put off something that needs doing, do it. The thought of spending a day doing nothing frightens me, as does wasting time. Is it easy to live with? No, it isn’t. We are hearing more and more about top achievers who have ADHD – particularly sports people – and my sense is that our understanding of this is only at the tip of the iceberg. It is that drive that ADHD can give you that spurs you on when others may quit.

If I score four or more I should progress to Part B. I scored six, so onward for a further 12 questions. The scale remains the same: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often and Very Often.

Question 7: How often do I make careless mistakes when I work on a boring or difficult paper? I make careless mistakes in interesting and easy work. Though that may be my dyslexia. I must read an email four or five times when I am replying, to make sure I’m covering every point and question in it. I don’t tend to make mistakes of substance, because I have thought through the logic of what I am recording, whether I am recording what I am thinking is sometimes the challenge.

“It is a key learning point that the physical environment is critical if you are to get the best out of those you lead and manage.”

Supt Paul Burrows

Question 8: Do I struggle keeping my attention when doing boring or repetitive work? Yes absolutely. If an email comes in, then that will be answered first. If another more interesting task comes in, then that will be dealt with first. However, the task will always be done in timescale and to the best of my ability – it just might take longer than it should to complete.

Question 9: Do I struggle to pay attention to people when they are speaking to me to me directly? Yes, particularly if I am distracted by something else that is on my mind. This is without doubt one of my greatest failings.

Question 10: How often do I misplace things or have difficulty finding them at home or at work? Well, I don’t know! I live such a minimalist existence with no ornaments, plants, clutter or anything on a surface that it would, in fact, be a tremendous achievement to lose something. Everything has its place and it needs to be there. If it can be thrown away, it will be. This is where my autism overtakes my potential ADHD. By way of example, at home the toaster has to be in a drawer and if it made sense, the kettle would be in there with it. Well, it keeps me calm! It also makes cleaning much simpler.

Question 11: How often am I distracted by activity or noise around me? The best example is that I was seeing a counsellor recently and got fixated on a gap in the wallpaper where it was coming apart. I mentioned this at the end of the session, and they agreed that because I’m autistic they would do something about it. If I hadn’t been, they wouldn’t have! I am constantly distracted by noise and will invariably be the first person to point it out – at which point everyone else starts to notice it. It is a key learning point when managing others that the physical environment is critical if you are to get the best out of those you lead and manage.

Question 12: How often do I leave my seat in meetings or other situations when I am expected to remain seated? I don’t, although I want to in every meeting. The trouble is our etiquette means that we simply don’t do this. Consequently, I’m left squirming on my seat every minute or so, adopting different potions akin to Rodin’s Thinker, trying to expend my excess energy. The trouble is this movement is often seen as me being disinterested. It’s not – I simply can’t sit still. The other position I adopt when typing is sitting at my desk with my trouser legs rolled up. For some reason that calms me – you won’t be surprised to know I live in shorts!

Question 13: How often do I feel restless or fidgety? Constantly, 24/7 – I can’t sit still. My idea of a holiday is constant movement, driving or walking from one place to another. Sitting by the pool or waiting for the next meal is purgatory. In fact, anything other than constant mental stimulation is purgatory, even if that stimulation is the next cow passing the window of the vehicle I’m in.

Question 14: How often do I have difficulty unwinding and relaxing when I have time to myself? Constantly. I’m like a wound spring – I must be tired physically and mentally to be able to even begin to relax. I can’t settle to TV programmes, and will watch even a 20 minute episode of a comedy programme in three or four sittings. It gets worse when I sleep. I always fall asleep easily, but then wake up between six and ten times a night – I know because I have an app that tells me.

Question 15: How often do I find myself talking too much when I’m in social situations? I don’t. Again, this is where my autistic self comes to the fore. Put in front of hundreds of people to give a talk/speech – no problem, in fact I actively enjoy it. Put me on a table or in a room of four or five people that I don’t know, and I clam up. It is why I always sit at the back of a room as it is the best place to be anonymous. I don’t go to parties, Christmas do’s, retirement do’s. I love rugby, but the thought of going to watch an international match sends cold shivers down my spine. Too many people, too little control of my environment. It is one of the great regrets of my existence.

Question 16: When I’m in conversations, do I finish other people’s sentences before they can? Shamefully yes – I get bored too easily, join the dots (not always correctly), and then finish the other’s response. It Is not something I am proud of and do my best not to do it, but it is again one of my greatest flaws.

Question 17: Do I struggle to take my turn when turn-taking is required? Yes, queues do my head in. I am impatient to a fault. I will regularly leave a queue even with two or three people in it because I don’t have the patience to wait. People who get to the till in a shop and don’t have their card ready to pay, drive me to the point of distraction. I spend so much time planning in my head (autism over ADHD) that it drives me potty when others don’t. The flip side and downside of this is that spontaneity at home can be hugely challenging for me. The challenge of highly dynamic public order situations where I have to think on my feet is engaging and something I thrive at, though perhaps because I spend so much time thinking about what I would do in a given circumstance.

Question 18: How often do I interrupt others when they are busy? I would love to, but I don’t. I have learned that this really isn’t socially acceptable, though if someone’s office door is open, I will see this as an invite to speak to them. Otherwise, I will leave well alone.

There is no score threshold for Part B – the assessment awaits!

I hope by listing these questions and my responses, I’m giving an insight into the assessment process, but also into the reactions of someone who may well have ADHD. There will be many of your colleagues who can and will respond similarly – so my challenge to us all, is how do we change our way of doing business so that we can become more inclusive? ∎

This blog was originally published on the PSA website as part of Neurodiversity Celebration Week – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

My diagnosis diary (part 2)

by Superintendent Paul Burrows
Disability Lead | Police Superintendents’ Association

In this second blog about my journey through my assessment for autism and ADHD, I’d like to share my experiences of the self-assessment form I’ve had to complete for autism. I am prepared to bet that some of you who read this will be thinking at the end, ‘well that’s me’. I am predicting, ever more confidently, that policing has a significant number of undiagnosed autistics within its ranks, so please don’t be surprised.

Supt Paul Burrows

A blog about filling forms in? What could be more riveting? If nothing else, it will give an insight into the indicators you may see in yourself or others that would suggest they may be on one spectrum or another. And please don’t sit there thinking, ‘well, everyone’s a little bit autistic’, because they’re not, and saying that is hugely frustrating to those that are; lecture over, sorry.

So, (which I read recently is one of the most-hated ways of starting a sentence), the autism self-assessment form. This is cunningly entitled the ‘AQ-10 Adult’ – I believe this means Autism Question 10! There are 10 questions surprisingly.

Because there are 10 questions, I feel compelled to cover all 10 questions, in order. A precis is not good enough. Perhaps that is evidence in and of itself of my being autistic?

Question 1: Do I notice small sounds when others don’t? Well, when chairing a meeting recently I because obsessed with a clicking noise in the room that no one else seemed to notice, until I pointed it out. At which point everyone seemed to get obsessed with it. I do find background noise hugely frustrating. Please don’t get me onto the subject of music in shops – particularly supermarkets. I mean, WHY? Who chooses the drivel that gets played and why is it so loud?

I recently Googled what music autistic people seemed to prefer – I found one answer that was classical and rock. Well, that’s me down to a tee, so more soothing heavy rock music in supermarkets please, and see what everyone else has to say about it! I’d also ask that you now look out for the ‘autism-friendly’ quiet hours in supermarkets. Wednesday and Saturday 9-10am is one offer. Whilst it’s better than nothing, clearly autistic people don’t want to have a lie in, if indeed they are lucky enough to have a job. The job market can often by a hostile and difficult place for those who are neurodivergent (ND).

Question 2: Do I focus on the big or small picture? Well, that’s an interesting one. I can see big picture and critical path as well as anyone, but only through my focus on the specific details. This is another ND trait: seeing questions from multiple directions. I have found myself frustrating people over the years as I triangulate information with highly detailed questions, testing in my mind whether the big picture strategy will work. I also make movies in my head. So, when I am commanding a public order operation during the planning process, I play the ‘video’ in my head of what is going to happen. Any scenes that are fuzzy or missing need some directing. So, no specific one way or the other answer for me. My ongoing frustration is that many people like me don’t have their skills fully utilised at work. I would ask anyone reading this blog to reflect upon the thorny big picture issues they are dealing with, and seek a neurodivergent approach to tackling the problem – I’m prepared to bet you’ll be surprised by the result and the simplicity of it.

Question 3: Can I multi-task? Definitely not. How people watch TV, read and knit at the same time is completely beyond my understanding. Well in fairness I have never understood knitting patterns, unlike Dumbledore, so knitting alone confuses me. What I can bring however is hyper-focus to a task. Once I get lost in a task, which can take a while if I’m distracted by noise or light, I can emerge hours later in what seems to me to be the blink of an eye.

Feeding off my answer to that question, Question 4 asks how quickly I can return to a task if interrupted. I practice MBWA, Management By Walking About. I just thought that was how I liked to do things, it never occurred to me it might be because I might have ADHD and find it impossible to sit still. Consequently, if distracted, I will usually find something I need to do that involves me walking somewhere to burn off the mental energy to return to task. I am also a big unit as they say, so when I turn up to someone’s desk asking a question, I can be quite hard to ignore. It seems to be an efficient way of doing business when otherwise I would be awaiting a return email that may take days or weeks to arrive. So, I get business done quickly.

I also find myself looking at new emails rather than focussing on the one I’m working on, and this can be distracting. This means that no, I can’t return to task easily. I soon learned to turn off the sound notification of a new email arriving, and that increased my efficiency significantly.

Question 5: Can I easily read between the lines when someone is talking to me? Quite simply – no. I am quite straightforward if someone says something to me, I don’t look for ulterior motive, I don’t communicate like that. I don’t hint – I ask for what I want or say what I mean. Why should others be opaque? I don’t know if this makes me a poor judge of character. This is something I have considered a lot. But knowing others talk differently to me, I do use up a lot of mental energy and lose sleep wondering if there is a hidden meaning in what they are saying to me that I just can’t see or hear. ‘What you see is what you get’ is a saying that reflects me well. Though having said that, I continually mask my true self for fear of my directness upsetting people.

Question 6: Can I tell whether people I’m talking to are getting bored? My issue in answering this question is that I must answer it unmasked, rather than as I would in my normal operating mode. Let’s face it, I have a very low boredom threshold listening to myself talk; my automatic presumption is that anyone I talk to is going to lose interest pretty quickly. So even if they aren’t bored, I think they are. This is a very negative way of thinking I know, but one borne out of years of criticism of the way I communicate.

Consequently, I tend to give pertinent information in short, sharp sound bites that I think will impart all relevant information. I have been accused of holding personal phone calls like a business meeting, and I have all but taken minutes in some of them and asked for AOB. Soft communication that one would expect in a social environment is a real challenge.

The trouble with my staccato communication is it doesn’t always hit the mark, so I have to revisit what I say – there is a huge difference for me in actually boring people and thinking I am boring people. As my working presumption is that most people are bored, I tend not to have learned the cues of whether this is actually the case. I hope that makes sense. The trouble is after years of negative feedback it can sometimes be easier to get the self-defence strike in first, but on myself rather than others. You might think all of this strange, but I will bet that if you spoke to many autistic people, they will reflect a similar view based upon the feedback they have had.

Question 7 particularly tickled me. It is, ‘whether when I’m reading a story, can I work out the characters’ intentions’. Well, this does rather pre-suppose I read fiction. I seem to recall reading an Enid Blyton Famous Five novel around the age of eight; half a century to recall character intentions is a bit of a challenge. I am presently reading through Winston Churchill’s six volume history of World War II, where some of the characters’ intentions were all too painfully apparent, so do I say yes I do, or no I don’t? It’s hard to put caveats to questions that don’t apply.

Question 8: Do I collect information categories – for example, cars, birds, trains or plants? No not really, I have never been one for lining things up in various orders, or re-learning the engine capacities of motorbikes. However, trying to put my CD and DVD collection in order does give me a huge headache. Is it by colour of sleeves which looks prettiest, genre of music/film or alphabetical? To be honest, I find such decisions too stressful to make, so I give a half-hearted attempt to put them in some order, then throw the rest on the shelf because I don’t know whether AC/DC are now rock or metal. This means I always struggle to find what I’m looking for as the filing system doesn’t make sense! It’s like museums – I can’t go into them anymore. The overload of information is so great I have two choices: read everything or read nothing. Nothing it is. I sit outside.

Question 9: Can I work out what someone is thinking or feeling by looking at their face? At the extremes of human emotion – happiness and grief – then yes. The huge gulf between – largely no. I often refer to Sheldon Cooper in the Big Bang Theory TV programme. Whilst not on the same scale as him, I do empathise with his problems reading people.

Finally, Question 10: whether I find it difficult to work out people’s intentions. Yes, really the same as my answer above. Life would be so much easier if people said what they meant, politely but directly.

That is the AQ-10 finished. The list of questions may be of some help to those who have no knowledge of autism assessment and may trigger some thoughts about yourself or friends or family. Please remember my observations are purely personal and are intended to give some insight into the way I think. It will be down to the assessors to decide at some point whether this makes me autistic or not. I will of course share the next stage of my journey and hope this remains helpful for anyone looking to learn more about neurodivergent conditions and their impact on so many. ∎

This blog was originally published on the PSA website – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author