Criminal Justice System

Criminal Justice Information

All criminal justice professionals may come into contact with people on the autism spectrum, many of whom may be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Here you will find information about autistic people, tips for initial police contact, interviews and court appearances, ways that parents and carers can help, and where to find further information and training.

Why might autistic people become involved in the Criminal Justice Service?

Autistic people are more likely to be victims and witnesses of crime than offenders. They experience difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination. They may have sensory difficulties and some coordination problems. Their behaviour may appear odd and can sometimes draw unnecessary attention, but in general autism is a hidden disability and it may not be immediately obvious to other people that the person has a disability.

When autistic people commit offences, it may be for the following reasons.

• Social naivety. The desire to have friends has led some autistic people to be befriended by criminals, and become their unwitting accomplices. People on the autism spectrum often do not understand other people’s motives.

• Difficulty with change or unexpected events. An unexpected change in the environment or routine, e.g. a public transport delay, may cause great anxiety and distress, leading to aggressive behaviour.

• Misunderstanding of social cues. For example, many autistic people have difficulties with eye contact, which may be avoided, fleeting, prolonged or inappropriate. This may be interpreted as making unwanted sexual advances.

• Rigid adherence to rules. They may become extremely agitated if other people break these rules. For example, an autistic man was known to kick cars that were parked illegally.

• Not understanding the implications of their behaviour. Due to difficulties with social imagination, an autistic person might not learn from past experience. They may repeatedly offend if not offered the correct support and intervention.

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder affecting about 1/100 of the population. Most adults remain undiagnosed. It can have a profound effect across all age groups on individuals, their families and work place/ employability.

The National Autistic Society have produced an excellent guide for police officers and staff.

When responding to a call that involves a person on the autism spectrum, officers may face a situation that will challenge the training, instincts and professional conduct of even the most experienced officer. Whilst officers may approach what they perceive to be a ‘run of the mill’ incident in a manner they feel appropriate to ensure their own safety and that of others their mere presence may cause, what they perceive as, an inappropriate response by a person on the autism spectrum.

Remember a person on the autism spectrum may not understand the implications of their behaviour or the consequences of their actions even if their actions are perceived or seen as aggressive. They may fail to respond to an order and avoid eye contact with the officer. Officers should not misinterpret these actions as a reason for increased use of force as this may cause the autistic person’s behaviour to escalate or even totally withdraw into themselves because of their fear, frustration or confusion. In this situation the person will just want the circumstances to become less frightening but may not have the ability to formulate a way to implement such a change particularly when anxious or distressed.

The following points will be helpful to the police and professionals throughout the Criminal Justice System when communicating with someone who is on the autism spectrum:

  • Calm the situation by speaking clearly and slowly
  • Do not attempt to stop the person if they display behaviours such as flapping, rocking or making other repetitive movements as this can sometimes be a self-calming strategy that may subside once things have been explained to them clearly.
  • People on the autism spectrum may carry an object for security, such as a piece of string or paper - Please do not remove this object as this may raise anxiety and cause distress.
  • If sirens or flashing lights are being used, please turn them off to avoid alarm and distraction.
  • If possible, and if the situation is not dangerous or life-threatening, try to avoid touching the person to reduce possible extreme agitation due to heightened and acute sensitivity.
  • People on the autism spectrum may have an unusual response to pain and not report or be able to communicate injury. Therefore please check the person for any injuries, looking for unusual limb positions (e.g. limping or hanging arm) or other signs, such as abdominal pain.

To reduce possible risks, if an officer takes a person into custody who they think is on the autism spectrum, they should be immediately referred to the Liaison and Diversion Team for support.

An appropriate adult who knows the person and understands them should be also sought immediately in order to help reduce their anxiety and assist officers with their processes - if they have an ‘Alert Card’ details of a suitable contact will be on the reverse. Click here for more information on Alert Cards.

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