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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. ∎

“I wouldn’t swap having ADHD for anything”

Metropolitan Police Service officer and NPAA Coordinator Jess Rick talks about her diagnosis with ADHD, and the challenges and strengths it brings

Never ask someone with ADHD to tell you a story, because this is what happens:

But here we go, I will try anyway.

I have been asked to write this blog as October is ADHD Awareness Month. ADHD is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Someone once described it as “ADHD is not a deficit of attention; in fact it is an abundance of attention. The challenge is controlling it!”

ADHD may conjure up stereotypes of ‘naughty boys’ or children who can’t sit still. And by and large, that is true – after all, stereotypes come from somewhere, right? However, although four times more boys than girls are diagnosed with ADHD in childhood, by adulthood the ratio of males with ADHD to females with ADHD is more like 1:1.

I was one of those girls who didn’t appear in the statistics for children with ADHD, but I would appear in the adult statistics. Officially, I have only had ADHD since February 2020. But in reality, I’ve had it for 32 years because it is a lifelong condition. There are times where the ADHD is more obvious and times where it is less obvious, but it hasn’t gone away – it’s still there, and the chances are that if the signs are harder to spot then the person with ADHD is making some considerable effort to hide these signs.

So why is there such a gulf between these figures? Why are so many more males than females diagnosed in childhood, and vice versa? Mainly, this is due to the fact that symptoms in boys are generally more obvious and external: constantly running around, not being able to sit still, acting impulsively and in some cases being physically aggressive. Girls are more likely to internalise their symptoms and be withdrawn, anxious and daydreamers with low self-esteem.

For women who are not diagnosed in childhood, their ADHD generally only becomes apparent in later life when they try (and fail) to juggle work, family and other responsibilities. And when they try to seek help or understanding, they are very often misdiagnosed with other conditions such as anxiety, depression and in some cases personality disorders.

Whether male or female, everybody who has ADHD will have some (or all) of these signs and symptoms:

  • Short attention span, especially for non-preferred tasks
  • Hyperactivity, which may be physical, verbal, and/or emotional
  • Impulsivity, which may manifest as recklessness
  • Fidgeting or restlessness
  • Disorganization and difficulty prioritising tasks
  • Poor time management and ‘time blindness’
  • Frequent mood swings and emotional dysregulation
  • Forgetfulness and poor working memory
  • Trouble multitasking and executive dysfunction
  • Inability to control anger or frustration
  • Trouble completing tasks and frequent procrastination
  • Distractibility

For me, my ADHD started to become apparent when I was 17 and in sixth form. I was described by my teachers as someone who was ‘intelligent, but needed to apply herself a little more to achieve her full potential’. Without too much effort I achieved 10 GCSEs, all B grades or higher, but in sixth form it all unravelled and I barely scraped a pass in 2 A-Levels, only achieving C, D and E grades. My head of sixth form stated I would never get in to university and therefore would never amount to anything.

Luckily I had no intention of attending university and instead joined the Met, initially as a PCSO and then as a PC. However I began to struggle when I was on response team and my ADHD became even more apparent as I couldn’t understand why, having had a previously successful stint on response, I was struggling so badly now. My self-esteem got worse, and I developed anxiety and depression and found myself trapped in a cycle where the harder I tried, the more I kept struggling. It was like drowning – the more I kicked to try and keep my head above water, the further I sank. Eventually, I was given a choice: leave response, or be subject to the performance management process. I chose the former.

It would take me another four years before I was diagnosed with ADHD. Only now can I begin to understand who I truly am. I’m not an idiot, I’m not a failure. My brain is wired differently, and while I am disorganised and lose focus very easily, I am disciplined enough to (along with the help of my medication) control my distractibility to a certain extent. I am learning to stop setting myself ridiculously high and unachievable standards which knock my self-esteem when I don’t achieve them.

Most people perceive ADHD as something negative. But for me it makes me who I am. And it’s not always negative. I work very well under pressure – if I have to get something done by a certain deadline, I will pull out all the stops to get it done, and get it done to a high standard. I am extremely resilient – I guess I’ve had to be with all the hurdles I have had to overcome! If I’m struggling with managing my time or knowing which task to prioritise over others, instead of using neurotypical techniques to try and help (and then being surprised when they don’t work because I am not neurotypical!) I find some ADHD-friendly techniques instead.

My life may have ended up differently to what I originally imagined, but I wouldn’t swap having ADHD for anything.

I will finish with a quote I have stolen from a colleague in the MOD Police who also has ADHD as he says it much better (and with fewer words) than I can. He says: “Don’t be harsh on yourself. Stop viewing the world from a neurotypical vantage point that sees your traits as negatives, and understand that you are different and special. You have unique gifts, and to steal a quote from a colleague, each of us is simply a different kind of clever. So – forget your weaknesses and seek out your strengths.” ∎

Equality vs Equity

As a support network for neurodivergent police officers and staff, one of our most frequently-asked questions concerns reasonable adjustments. A reasonable adjustment is defined as a change in the workplace to remove or reduce the effect of an employee or job applicant’s disability, when carrying out or applying for a job. Disabled employees and applicants, including* those with neurodivergent conditions such as autism and dyslexia, are entitled to reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act to help them overcome the limitations of their disability or condition at work or in seeking employment.

An important concept in the reasonable adjustment process is that it is sometimes necessary to treat people differently in order to provide everyone with an equal opportunity to succeed. This is best illustrated by the following graphic, created by the Canadian City for All Women Initiative:

The first image shows what can happen when everyone is treated equally – some people will lose out due to the effect of their disability or other protected characteristic. The second image shows equity, or fairness, and how this differs from equality – by giving some people additional support, everyone has an equal chance of success.

Reasonable adjustments in selection and promotion processes are sometimes misunderstood as ‘special treatment’ that gives some people an unfair advantage (and therefore disadvantages others). It’s important to understand that adjustments are there to ensure that disabled and neurodivergent applicants have the same chance of success as everyone else – the second image in the graphic. A typical example is wording the interview questions for an autistic candidate to remove any ambiguity, and allowing the candidate to have each question in writing to refer to when they provide their answer. Research by the University of Bath has shown that autistic interviewees can over-analyse or misinterpret questions and struggle to mentally organise their evidence to fit what is being asked – adjusting the style of questions, providing thinking time and written prompts allows the candidate to overcome these difficulties and present themselves as well as other applicants. (Candidates with dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions may also benefit from these adjustments.)

Continuing the example of workplace interviews, some employers have gone a step further by providing all candidates with neurodivergent-friendly questions, preparation time and written prompts. This is an example of the third image in the graphic – removing the systemic barrier so that no one is disadvantaged or needs to ask for adjustments. With a little thought and effort, this approach can be applied to any workplace environment, process or culture – and as with the interview example, it has the potential to benefit everyone, disabled or not. ∎

*Neurodivergent conditions may meet the criteria of a disability – assessed on an individual basis