Photo of Clare Hughes, NAS Criminal Justice Manager, by the London Eye, next to purple quote


Clare Hughes, the National Autistic Society’s Criminal Justice Manager, sums up her experiences as a panellist at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism’s (APPGA) inquiry session on Access to Justice.

Since I found out that there would be an evidence gathering session on Access to Justice as part of the APPGA’s inquiry into the Autism Act, I have been looking forward to it. Yesterday it finally happened! It is so important to me that there is more focus on autistic people’s experience of the criminal justice system.

Working with a range of criminal justice agencies every week, I hear about autistic people who are struggling, who have been misunderstood, whose behaviour has been misinterpreted and who need more help and support.

Thankfully, I also hear about and work with committed and passionate justice staff working incredibly hard to support autistic people, often without confidence in their ability or without an understanding of the impact they may have. What they might see as minor reasonable adjustments might be having a profound impact on that person and their belief that someone does care. It is clear that more needs to be done as part of the Government’s next autism strategy to improve autistic people’s experiences when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.

At the inquiry session yesterday, we heard some fantastic examples of best practice, but we also heard of things that still aren’t working for autistic people in all aspects of the criminal justice system. Training came through as a priority for police officers and staff, as well as magistrates, solicitors, barristers, prison and probation staff. Without this training, staff don’t know how to support autistic people and that means that injustices can happen – as was highlighted by family members who gave evidence.

But, with training, it helps staff to question their behaviour and how they interpret the behaviour of others, rather than assuming that people are trying to be difficult. Having a better understanding of autism may also help staff understand how the person may have ended up in the criminal justice system and what needs to be done to ensure that the person doesn’t re-enter the criminal justice system.

This is why I was pleased to see Welsh Labour MP, Ann Clwyd MP, introduce a Ten Minute Rule Bill in Parliament on 1 May, which proposed to make autism understanding training mandatory training for all police officers in England and Wales. Although Ten Minute Rule Bills often don’t make it into law, these bills are a really great way of raising this issue with politicians.

During the session, screening and access to diagnosis in custody were also discussed. Discussions about an autism forensic screening tool have been going on for a long time, but we are still no further on in developing this. Screening tools can also be inaccurate and shouldn’t be applied too strictly. Witnesses also raised that access to diagnosis in the criminal justice system can be particularly challenging, with long waits and unclear pathways to getting a diagnosis. We need to find a better way of identifying people in a timely way once in custody. Knowing that someone is autistic is crucial in sentence planning and in supporting people in their transition to other prisons or back into the community. As well as knowing someone is autistic, there need to be more services to meet their needs at each of these points.

The criminal justice system has come a long way in the 10 years since the Autism Act was passed, but there is still a very long way to go. Having an autism co-ordinator in every police force, accredited prisons and probation services, solicitors providing training on autism to the police and other legal professionals are all fantastic, but we must now ensure this is general practice, not best practice.