Category Archives: Blog

Guest Blog: My once lone voice is now echoing off the walls

by Ross Campbell
Superintendent | Warwickshire Police

As I reflect on my 10 year anniversary as a diagnosed person with dyslexia – a topsy-turvy journey over which I’ve battled with my inner self and outside influences – I remember that I used to be a lone voice.

I have always been an open advocate for dyslexia and disability, but I never quite felt that my voice was fully heard. It wasn’t fully understood as a disability and my challenges were never properly understood, despite my openness to talk about them. I have blogged snippets for many years, slowly increasing my following, and I know I have influenced and inspired people slowly, but its incredibly humbling when a stranger comes up to me, or reaches out to me and says that I have had a positive impact on their lives, or their neurodiversity, or I am asked to give a talk. This is why I do it.

Supt Ross Campbell

I’ve told probably over 1,000 people my story now – in person, through conferences and online sessions, and to countless others who have engaged with my dyslexia-focused social media page.

I have educated those who have asked me when it was I ‘caught’ dyslexia… “Is it contagious?” Or “How can ‘someone like you do a job like this’?”… and many others. This just shows, in 2023, how far we still have to go. I have people stumble over language around me when I talk about disability; quite frankly, so long as its not discriminatory or offensive, then I really don’t mind how people broach it. It’s the fact that we are talking about it that matters, and long may that continue.

At the time when I began my journey, I was by far one of the most senior people in policing talking about my dyslexia and showing that our amazing difference is not something that will hold you back. Now it is incredible to see so many others sharing their stories, of all ranks and grades right up to Chief Officer. This is absolutely amazing to see and I take my hat off to them, because I know how difficult it is to take that first step. When people see rank, they see success. We as dyslexics don’t see that a lot of the time: we see frustration, challenge, disadvantage, an un-level playing field, failure and buckets of self-criticism. For example, I have sat 10 promotion boards to get to Superintendent.

What portrays this visually is the brilliant image by Sylvia Duckworth, a Canadian teacher who depicts the ‘Iceberg effect’. For me, nothing could be closer to the truth.

When I left school, I did so with no qualifications. Since my diagnosis 10 years ago, I have been to university and achieved a first class honours degree, a master’s degree whereby I got a distinction in my final research project, and I have just started a PhD, for which I obtained a funded scholarship having presented my vision for future research in my specialist field. I have also managed to get promoted from Sergeant to Superintendent. The dyslexic kid done good! How have I done this? Well nothing has changed – my brain is no different, I just now understand how it works. I have an intimate understanding neurodiversity and psychology (through my academia) and I understand what my brain needs in order to work more effectively. It’s a bit like rewiring a fused short circuit.

Let’s go back to the iceberg for one moment. Above the water: wow, look at what I have achieved! – which of course I am absolutely proud of. But I have also spent a considerable amount of time beneath the surface, which is very difficult to come up from because it has a tendency to keep dragging you back down, like a strong current as you try and swim against the tide. On bad days you are trying to do that blindfolded, in a storm. Mental wellbeing is incredibly important for neurodivergent people: mental health can very quickly become a viscous cycle of self-destruction, because neurodiversity at its core can impact on emotion and behaviour.

There are lots of methods that can assist you with keeping your brain regulated with the positivity it needs, such as mindfulness apps, coaching and mentoring, and reading (or listening to audiobooks) on the subject. Also important is the right support in your workplace, the right awareness of neurodiversity, workplace adjustments, and of course, a fundamental shift in culture.

I have, during my time, thankfully been able to influence change in process and policy both locally and nationally; and in my Force, I have a great Chief Officer team who really do ‘get it’. We revolutionised reasonable adjustments for promotion processes in particular, and were very early adopters of policy and practice I now see embedded nationally. That said, there is still a long way to go, and I know we don’t get it right every time. Every time we don’t, that impacts on a person, just like you and me. So we need to listen, learn and continue to share experiences.

I am seeing the increasing number of support groups appearing for neurodiversity both locally and nationally, and there are some really exciting things on the horizon. There are also working groups actively leading and influencing change nationally, across all of the key policing stakeholders and partnerships.

My next adventure is navigating the pathway to an ADHD diagnosis. Again, I have read so many stories around people’s experiences and reflections as they have embarked and progressed on this journey, that I now set out myself with less fear that I may have felt without them. I will write about this as it progresses.

My once lone voice is now echoing off the walls – it’s amazing to see, and long may it continue. We all need to keep encouraging people to speak up because their voice isn’t a lone one; and together, as a community we can continue to do great things. ∎

Guest Blog: Wired for difference

To mark the start of this year’s World Autism Awareness Week, we share a blog by Superintendent Marc Attwell on how being autistic has helped him in his policing career

I’m Marc Attwell and I am a Superintendent in South Wales Police. I also happen to be autistic, or what used to be referred to as Asperger syndrome.

I, like Commander Dobinson from the Metropolitan Police and others, did not discover I was autistic until late in life. In fact I discovered I was autistic only a few short years ago.

I still remember it now: suddenly it made a lot of sense. All the things I had struggled with, and all of those I found easy, were explained to me by a consultant psychiatrist. While incredibly liberating, it was also upsetting as now there was a real reason as to why I was the way I was.

There is a common myth that those of us who are autistic lack empathy and don’t feel emotions. In fact, those of us on the autistic spectrum often care deeply about the feelings of others and ourselves. The problem is that we often struggle to make sense of the social cues, which are often very subtle, such as facial expressions, body language and other non-verbal communicators. For me, emotional intelligence is very much learnt, rather than being innate as it is with many of my colleagues.

Another common myth is that people on the autistic spectrum are geniuses. We might be, but invariably we’re not. The media is full of stories and films about the autistic savants: the chess prodigy or the mathematical geniuses à la Rain Man. What we do often have are intense interests and passions, and some of us make a career out of pursuing those passions.

Supt Marc Attwell (front centre, standing) on public order deployment

An issue that I, like many adults who discover they are autistic late in life, had was that the system to diagnose is primarily geared towards children and mainly from an educational development perspective. For adults like I who had spent a lifetime developing ‘masks’ and systems to cope with living in a neurotypical world, the diagnostic tools used by psychiatrists aren’t where we need them to be, but things are improving.

For all the challenges I can sometimes experience, the benefits of being autistic far outweigh them and bring great benefits to my role as a senior leader in policing.

I have a very non-standard way of learning, which has at times caused great difficulties with the more traditional learn by rote methods still employed in some parts of policing. However I do find that providing that I am interested in a subject that I can pick it up and learn it very quickly and to a high standard.

I have a real passion for the detail and enjoy deep thinking.  When our job is to examine how a system operates and how we as a police service can best protect our communities this is a real strength.

Like other police officers who are autistic, I have a fearless approach to decision making. This doesn’t mean that I am cavalier or take unnecessary risks. Instead, I am able to very swiftly distil the essential from the non-essential and form decisions whether that is leading a public order deployment as public order commander, as a Strategic Firearms Commander or making decisions about the corporate and organisational matters that are part of the daily business of being a senior leader in a Basic Command Unit.

Policing provides me with the environment I need to thrive as a person. I enjoy operating in chaotic environments but only so I can impose order and routine on them.  I enjoy being organised and take great pride in noticing the detail that others often do not. These are all qualities that are prized in policing.

However, policing is still not without its challenges for me. I struggle in social situations and therefore the traditional interview processes can be overwhelming. I have to work hard to read peoples’ emotions and I struggle to sometimes understand the shades of grey that we sometimes have to operate in – something is either right or wrong to me.

Being aware of my condition allows me to manage this and to contribute fully wherever I can. It also allows my colleagues, friends and loved ones to understand me better.

I am proud to be wired different to most other people, and if you are wired differently too then I encourage you to be proud of that difference as well.

We can add so much more to policing if we are able to be ourselves and contribute our fullest potential.

Most police forces now have neurodiversity support networks and champions, and the National Police Autism Association isn’t just providing a place for those who are neurodivergent to gather, but also a national voice for improving policing for those within it, and for the communities that we have all sworn to protect. ∎

Firearms and neurodiversity

Ministry of Defence Police Inspector Dan Harris argues that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to training is preventing officers with neurodivergent conditions such as autism and ADHD from entering firearms and other specialised roles

Can neurodivergent (ND) conditions ever be compatible with firearms or other specialist policing roles, such as those requiring advanced driving skills?

For those with lived experience or with connections to ND, there would likely be a resounding Yes: you might think that each person should be judged and supported based on their individual merits, but how can this ever be applied fairly when a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unknowingly applied by many organisations to the selection in specialist policing roles? In this blog I will dissect current approaches and present a credible argument as to why certain processes need to be abandoned to level the playing fields within specialist roles and allow those of us who think and present differently to be given an equitable chance to fulfil our career aspirations. After all, why should someone who thinks in a different way be excluded any more than someone who has an overt difference such as their ethnicity or sexual orientation? To exclude the latter or allow practices that create disadvantage would rightly provoke mass disapproval, so why is it being allowed to happen to ND officers?

Whether you like it or not, if you were to present yourself to a firearms training team and disclose you are ADHD or autistic during selection, there would be immediate preconceptions drawn regarding your ability to successfully pass the necessary assessments, and likely prejudgements made regarding some of the perceived common symptoms affiliated to these conditions. At best you might have a situation where the instructors were indifferent and knew very little about your difference, but this might not make things any easier for you. If you think this can’t happen, you are wrong: I successfully negotiated assessments for the Marine Unit and Operational Firearms Commander role, only to have my authorisation cancelled because of my ADHD diagnosis.

So is there a problem, and if so where does it lie? I will present here some personal views and I welcome dialogue around these areas.

I work for a policing organisation where 98% of officers are armed. We are the largest armed policing organisation in the UK, and I can categorically state that as an organisation we are failing to address this issue appropriately, from my own experience and as noted by the NPCC and the College of Policing. There is a disparity across the UK amongst all policing organisations as to how stringent selection is for officers to pursue careers in firearms. Some organisations have a steady stream of volunteers seeking this career choice, and this not only creates competition but also generates an elitist attitude amongst those who represent the department. None of this bodes well if you are reporting being ND, and I suspect many attempting this training would avoid disclosing their difference for fear of it diminishing their chances of success.

I have conducted significant research into why policing organisations are struggling to give appropriate support to officers seeking specialist policing roles. The NPCC and College of Policing have previously highlighted the medical model of disability in their studies (more on this below), but I feel they have only merely skimmed over this topic and have failed to identify why it plays a significant part in creating disadvantage to ND officers when in direct competition with others for so few posts. Little has been done as yet to make wholesale changes which would likely generate a positive cultural shift.

It’s well-known that persons who wish to pursue firearms careers will be subjected to several assessments which include medicals and fitness tests. If successful, these officers will then be subjected to training and subsequent firearms assessments to determine suitability. In those forces where selection processes are competitive, only the best will succeed. This is where many ND applicants will fall by the wayside. Firearms training is notoriously challenging and requires full focus and attention as well as the ability to rapidly make calculated judgements. None of this is beyond those of us who present with ND difference, but I would suggest these factors can conspire against us and create challenges that others don’t have to endure.

Most forces continue to follow the medical model of disability – this is perhaps more an unconscious awareness, but few look at the ramifications of doing so when considering ND in isolation. Controversially, there will be differences in opinion even amongst our community, and research in my own organisation has exposed this. A proportion of us (I include myself in this) will not be comfortable with the label of ‘disabled’, and in my organisation, many respondents to my research reported an aversion to this label whilst still expressing experiencing difficulties in their working environments. Think about your own organisations and how ND is viewed: for most this will be treated fundamentally under disability processes, and thus the only way to evoke any kind of support is by identifying as disabled, which ordinarily requires diagnosis. Enter the medical model of disability, which seeks to label a condition and then to cure all the elements that are perceived to be negative: where a condition cannot be cured, then the person is ‘disabled’ and labelled in a manner which suggests inadequacy. I would argue that this negativity permeates into selection processes, as disability is viewed by some as being incompatible with the elite role of firearms or the high levels of driving skills needed for some specialist roles. The medical model presents perfect environmental conditions for unconscious bias to influence selection processes; for those who brave them without disclosing their conditions, the very least they can expect is extreme challenges in overcoming their differences.

“As a neurodivergent officer, I need better training, not easier assessments”

The social model of disability was first penned during the mid-nineties and was driven by an online movement, predominantly from the autistic community .This group of like-minded people vehemently refused to accept the label of disability, and the concept of ND was born. The problem was that most organisations still followed the medical model of disability, meaning that if you wanted support for a ND condition, engaging in this process was realistically the only way you could get it.

Most specialist roles including firearms and higher levels of driving will require training and then a subsequent assessment, but this is where things go wrong for those who present as ND. The training is often tailored to meet the needs of the majority and it is designed to be delivered in a limited time. Many organisations will see this time pressure as the ultimate tool in weeding out those who cannot reach the required standards. Firearms and driving instructors will argue that assessments should not be adjusted, but what might surprise them is that most ND candidates would agree. The problem does not lie in the assessments themselves, but in the teaching leading up to the assessments. More thought is needed by qualified trainers as to how training can be adapted to meet the needs of individual learners, which is a fundamental part of adult pedagogy and a skill most trainers need to possess. The other issue however is the mistrust that is generated through the medical model of disability, which will lead to some fearing disclosure of their difference. Then of course there are our colleagues who may be unaware they are ND: for the record I would argue these persons are predominantly from underrepresented groups. As psychologist Dr Nancy Doyle pointed out, having a diagnosis for a ND difference these days is a privilege that not all are fortunate to attain. Universal adjustments can address this issue, but that’s a separate discussion. The medical model not only harbours potential unconscious bias, but it also generates fear and mistrust amongst those with ND conditions.

Policing organisations need to move away from the medical model of disability, and I would agree with Dr Doyle that the social model in isolation is not the answer either. This approach suggests those who have ND should be encouraged to live with the difference rather than seeking medication or a label to highlight their difference, but this fails to consider how environments can sometimes be difficult for the individual to adapt to. This is where specialist courses have the maximum negative effect on ND people, as the teaching and time constraints challenge those of us within the ND world. We are never prepared for the subsequent assessments in the same way neurotypical people are.

Dr Doyle presents an alternative concept known as the biopsychosocial model, which encourages focus on several environmental elements when structuring policies and processes. ND should not be shoehorned under the auspice of disability once diagnosed; however, elements of the medical model need to be accepted for diagnosis. Support needs to be catered around the individual and not the perceived condition or its effects, as universally applied via the medical model. The biopsychosocial model acknowledges the uses of the medical approach to diagnose a difference, but calls for organisations to treat ND individuals according to their individual needs. The organisational needs should be balanced against the individuals in consideration of the social model approach, and when considering policies and processes I would predicate that recognising the uniqueness and incompatibility of ND within the medical model approach would be a great help towards making cultural shifts within our organisations.

When considering the Public Sector Equality duty, policing organisations need to understand that over 15% of the adult population will be ND, and the medical model of disability which underpins most organisational approaches will create inequitable practices when applying it to ND. If we want to encourage ND officers to pursue specialist policing careers and to successfully negotiate the relevant assessments, then greater care and attention is needed to support the individual according to their needs. As ND officer, I need better training, not easier assessments. ∎