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.
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, eg 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.
Initial police contact can exacerbate a difficult situation. The use of handcuffs and restraint may be extremely frightening for someone who does not understand what is happening and may not be able to communicate their fears in an appropriate way. This, coupled with the use of loud sirens, may result in sensory overload, causing the person to try to run away or hit out at people, including the police. The very presence of the police may cause great anxiety to a law-abiding autistic person who has no comprehension of the crime they may have committed.
- Switch off sirens and flashing lights.
- Keep calm. People on the autism spectrum can often sense anxiety in other people, which in turn can make them more anxious.
- Autistic people may not understand personal space. They may invade your personal space, or they may need more personal space than other people.
- Approach the person in a non-threatening way and keep facial expressions and gestures to a minimum.
- If you know the person's name, use it at the start of each sentence so that they know you are addressing them.
- Give clear, slow and direct instructions. For example, "Jack, get out of the car".
- Allow the person time to process information and don't expect an immediate response to instructions.
- Avoid using sarcasm, metaphors or irony. An autistic person may take what you say literally.
- Do not shout at the person.
- Make sure you explain clearly what is happening and where you are taking them.
- Autistic people will often understand better if you use visual information. Use visual supports to explain what is happening or, if they can read, put it in writing.
- If possible, avoid touching the person.
- Do not try to stop the person from flapping or from other repetitive movements as this can sometimes be a self-calming strategy and may subside once things have clearly been explained to them.
- Check the person for any injuries in as non-invasive way as possible. They may not be able to communicate if they are in pain.
An autistic person has the right to an appropriate adult.
If the person refuses a solicitor, it may be because they do not understand their role and will feel even more confused when another stranger becomes involved.
When the custody officer asks the person whether they have a disability, most autistic people will say no because the question it is not specific enough.
If the custody officer suspects that the person may have a disability, and contacts the Force Medical Officer, be aware that they may have only limited autism knowledge, and may not recognise that someone has the condition. This could also be true of any social worker who is called. We would advise that a specialist in the field of autism, such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, be contacted.
Due to the difficulties autistic people have with communication and social interaction, a police interview can be extremely difficult. The person may appear very able, with a good or even exceptional vocabulary, and there may be no reason for an interviewing police officer to suspect that the interviewee requires additional help.
However, the officer may later find they receive blunt answers, the subject is changed and the individual is reluctant to make direct eye contact. The literal way in which a person on the autism spectrum might interpret language can lead to them giving incorrect answers or becoming anxious.
All these things contribute to an assumption of guilt. Indeed, some of the interrogation techniques used by interviewers could inadvertently elicit false confessions from an autistic person.
Here are some suggestions for interviewing autistic people to help elicit the correct response.
- Keep language clear, concise and simple.
- Use short sentences.
- Use their name at the start of each sentence so they know they are being addressed.
- Avoid the use of any irony, sarcasm or metaphors, as these could be taken literally.
- Ask specific questions that avoid ambiguity.
- Be aware that they may simply repeat back the question they were asked.
- If asked a yes or no question, they may repeat back the first or last word said with no understanding of the question. Try asking a series of yes or no questions to determine the style and dependability of the response, and then follow this up with the key yes or no questions you need an answer to.
- Allow them extra thinking time to process the information.
- Keep your facial expressions and hand gestures to a minimum.
- The use of visual supports may be helpful.
The person may need frequent breaks. Explain clearly that he or she is going to have a break for a specified amount of time and what will happen next. Signs that they are becoming anxious and in need of a break may include repetitive speech, hand-flapping or other repetitive movements, self-injury such as hand biting, shouting or physical behaviour.
If the solicitor recognises that their client has autism or a mental health condition, they might ask to delay proceedings until a psychiatric report can be obtained. In the International Classification of Diseases, autism comes under the heading of 'Mental and behavioural disorders', and under the sub-group of 'Disorders of psychological development'. This offers the magistrate the option to proceed under mental health rather than criminal legislation.
A defendant on the autism spectrum should be assessed for their capacity to understand the proceedings. Some autistic people are unfit to plead in court. The judge or jury can decide on a person's fitness to plead and can draw on as many psychiatric reports as necessary in order to do this.
It is essential to have a report from a specialist in the autism field. Details of a small number of specialists able to act in court cases are available from our Autism Helpline. Sometimes it is easier to obtain a specialist medical report after obtaining medical reports from the person's GP. In some cases, a court may make a hospital order for 28 days for assessment. This will usually be at the local psychiatric unit, where there may not necessarily be an autism specialist.
Witnesses who are on the autism spectrum may need special measures and/or a Registered Intermediary who can help the judge and the lawyers to phrase their questions in a way that the person will understand. At the discretion of the judge, these things can also be put in place for a vulnerable defendant.
Police or the Crown Prosecution Service can request a Registered Intermediary through the Witness Intermediary Scheme by contacting the National Crime Agency Specialist Operations Centre (SOC) at email@example.com or on 0845 000 5463. This is for criminal cases only, and SOC can only take requests from the police or CPS, not from individuals.
More from the NAS
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Information from elsewhere
- Putting myself into words – a film about living with autism in the community and practical information for the police
- Sentence Trouble, about communication needs in the youth justice system
- Planning to question someone with an autism spectrum disorder including Asperger syndrome, one of a range of toolkits relating to vulnerable witnesses and defendants from The Advocate’s Gateway
- Autism, Advocates, and Law Enforcement Professionals, by Dennis Debbaudt, including a chapter on the interview and interrogation of people on the autism spectrum
- Memory and eyewitness testimony in autism by Dr Katie Maras and Fran Davies
- What’s my story: a guide to using intermediaries to help vulnerable witnesses, Office for Criminal Justice reform (2006)
- National Police Autism Association, for UK police officers and staff who have a personal or professional interest in autism
- Autism and Criminal Justice System Network, British Psychological Society
- Equal Access: Guidance for Prison Healthcare Staff treating Patients with Learning Disabilities, NHS England (2015)
- Prison Reform Trust
- Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts, a website from the Prison Reform Trust and Rethink Mental Illness
Last reviewed 22 February 2016.