What’s in a name?

“Why do you support dyslexia?” “Would someone needing support with depression feel comfortable joining an autism support group?” These sort of questions have come up a few times since the NPAA launched back in October 2015.

There are several reasons why a support group with “autism” in its name supports conditions which, on the face of it, have little to do with autism. At the time of our launch (and still the case at the time of writing) there was no dedicated national support body for dyslexic police officers and staff, or indeed any of the other ‘invisible’ conditions we support – dyspraxia, ADHD, depression and other forms of mental illness, and so on. In theory, any police employee needing support with a disability or illness should be able to approach their Force Disability Support Network; however not all Forces have DSNs, something which the Disabled Police Association – with whom we work closely – is striving to change. Of those that do, not all are set up to cater for specific conditions, with some DSNs tending to focus on matters of policy such as provision of reasonable adjustments, medical retirement and deployability. Police personnel affected by hidden conditions may have to contend with stigma and lack of understanding along with the practical issues caused by their condition (more on this in a moment), and can find themselves sharing greater commonality with the transgender and Gypsy Roma Traveller communities than with officers and staff affected by physical disabilities.

Secondly, as we provide national support through our web forum, why not open it up to talking about other conditions too? The most popular web forums tend to cover many subjects tangential to the forum’s official purpose – for instance, the Digital Spy forum officially covers TV shows, but hosts lively debates on many other subjects linked to media and technology – computers, mobile phones, music, politics etc. (Our web forum has a folder for general chat where members can discuss pretty much anything they like.) Any police officer or member of staff needing help with any condition, whether or not they are affected by autism themselves, can register anonymously on our forum and start a discussion, all in confidence. This is an interesting mash-up of two conflicting cultures – that of the police service, which is still quite conservative, proscriptive and slow to respond to change, and online culture which tends to find its own use for things and where new ideas can spread and take hold in a matter of hours.

Although conditions such as dyslexia and dyspraxia are not on the autistic spectrum, they have much in common with autism. To varying degrees, they all affect how the brain processes information – this is one example of the advantage of neurodiversity, as Asperger syndrome and dyslexia are synonymous with the ability to think and frame problems visually. Hidden conditions are often co-morbid, meaning that people who have one condition will often have another – for instance ADHD often crops up alongside AS, and there is a known overlap between dyslexia and dyspraxia. People with AS frequently suffer from depression at some point, probably due to the constant stress of social anxiety and sensory overload. But looking at the bigger picture, all these conditions have a stigma attached to them, particularly in a policing environment. It is still far easier for a police officer to talk about taking sick leave due to a physical injury or illness than to disclose depression as the reason for not being able to work. A question we are often asked is whether disclosing AS at work is the “right” thing to do – the implication being that disclosure may cause problems around withdrawal of career opportunities and other forms of prejudicial treatment. This is not a question that should need to be asked in 2016.

We hope that specialist groups will be set up in the future to cater for dyslexia and other hidden conditions within the police service, working alongside Disability Support Networks as we have done to provide local one-on-one support. Looking further ahead, we may also consider a name-change to something that reflects our commitment to neurodiversity as a whole, if that would better serve our members. But in the meantime, we are here for anyone who needs us. Regardless of whether it’s AS, ADHD or Arctic Monkeys you want to discuss – everyone is welcome.