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“Autistic people are vulnerable to being misunderstood and to ending up in the criminal justice system, accused of crimes when they may have had no criminal intent. They may also make socially naive decisions because of their autism, especially when feeling trapped and under intense stress.
It is vital that they have well-informed advocates and legal advice and that the Police and the Courts are well trained to make reasonable adjustments for an autistic defendant. Autistic people deserve proper support, especially when they make mistakes, given their disability.”
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Trinity College, Cambridge
President of International Society for Autism Research
"It is vital for autistic people to be treated fairly by the criminal justice system - not only when they are suspected of a crime, but also when they have witnessed or been a victim of crime, which is far more likely. Greater autism awareness can improve police practice and the criminal justice system as a whole.”
Tom Handley, Chief Executive, Exchange Chambers
“Autistic people are subject to the law, just like anyone else. But we're worried that autistic people could be at greater risk of being unfairly criminalised due to a lack of understanding of autism - among the police, courts and the wider public.
For example, autistic people find social communication difficult and can become extremely anxious in situations they don't understand - particularly if they're surrounded by noise and confusion. In some cases, this may lead to people losing control of their behaviour. This can be misinterpreted by emergency services and escalate quickly.
Some autistic people may also struggle to interpret other people’s motives, recognise social cues and understand possible consequences. This can leave autistic people susceptible to exploitation from so-called friends and they may unwittingly break the law.
It’s vital that everyone involved in the criminal justice system, from police officers and prison staff to High Court judges, get the training they need to be able to recognise when someone may be autistic, what it means to be autistic and how to respond appropriately. It's also important that specialist support is available for autistic people, from an early age and throughout their lives, to help them navigate what can be a chaotic and overwhelming world."
Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society
"I see people suffering in brutal ways. Many of these people don't belong in the system and everyone who isn't personally affected by it seems indifferent to varying degrees.
When we put an autistic individual in the criminal justice system as a first resort rather than a last, we ought to at least acknowledge that we are disenfranchising them for life as well as leaving them incapacitated.
If everyone is cool with that, carry on then."
Nick Dubin, Autistic author and commentator
See Nick's books here
"The right to a fair trial is a basic human right. I worry that, in respect of these cases, our courts are too keen to block appeals by those who might have been convicted by error of the courts. Such behaviour serves only to undermine our faith in the justice system. There is a tendency in Britain to believe that we have the best criminal justice system in the world. I put it to the House that our attitude to the British crime and justice system is riddled with a complacency that is wholly unjustified."
Andrew Mitchell, MP, agreed that this campaign use his previous quote in
respect of Alex Henry's case to apply to the wider issues raised on this site
"Adults with autism face a complex world outside of full-time education where the behaviours and traits associated with autism are often poorly understood, misinterpreted or even sometimes mistaken for criminality."
"The criminal justice system needs to be able to identify and understand the vulnerabilities of people with autism when they come into contact with the criminal justice system."
"Behaviours that are seen to be unusual can sometimes be misinterpreted as antisocial or, even worse, criminal. Indeed, it has been suggested that those who are the highest functioning on the autism spectrum can often bear the brunt of such misinterpretations as their condition is not otherwise obviously visible."
"When adults on the autistic spectrum come under suspicion of criminal behaviour, safeguarding becomes crucial."
Kevin Brennan, MP, from debate he raised in connection with Sam's Story
“Everyone has a right to fair justice. As a suspect in a criminal investigation, people with autism (as well as those with learning disabilities and/or mental disorders) can be vulnerable to a range of risks. These include difficulty exercising their rights, misunderstandings on both sides, being unintentionally misleading, suggestible, or overly compliant. This creates significant risks to justice.
That is why the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Codes of Practice (PACE Codes) require the involvement of an ‘appropriate adult’ (AA) to ensure a vulnerable person’s right to fair treatment and effective participation.
Research evidence suggests that many people for whom an AA is mandatory under the PACE Codes are never identified or provided with an AA during their detention and/or questioning.
An effective AA needs to understand individual needs, the rules by which the police must treat a suspect, and their own responsibilities and powers. Many AAs are untrained family members and friends who receive little in the way of explanation of their role. Many areas have organised schemes of trained AAs – often volunteers. However, local training does vary, including the extent to which autism is a feature. Furthermore, as there is no statutory duty to provide an AA for adults (as there is for children) some areas do not have an organised scheme at all. This can result in people getting no support or support from a person who is ill equipped to provide it.”
Watch interview with Chris here
Chris Bath, Chief Executive, National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN)
"The NPAA welcomes the efforts of Autism Injustice in highlighting the issues affecting autistic members of public who come into contact with the police service and criminal justice system. As a support group run by police officers, we understand that this can be a challenging area of police work - one of our key aims is to promote autism awareness training for frontline officers and supervisors to ensure that autistic individuals are given the appropriate support, whether as victims of crime or suspects.
That said, it is important to recognise that the stories highlighted by Autism Injustice represent a tiny fraction of the daily encounters of autistic people with the police service. As with all aspects of policing, it is the few bad experiences that tend to attract attention, with the majority of day-to-day good work going unrecognised. As a frontline officer myself, I know that colleagues strive to do their best under difficult circumstances, even when their knowledge of a particular condition (of which autism is one of many) may not be comprehensive. I would urge anyone needing police assistance to feel confident in contacting police, particularly if they have been a victim of crime due to their condition.
Our members discuss service delivery issues on the Police Neurodiversity Forum, a closed message board run by the NPAA, and we use examples such as those highlighted by Autism Injustice as learning tools to improve the training provided to our colleagues. We welcome support professionals to join in the discussion with us - for more information, visit the Membership page of our website: www.npaa.org.uk/membership"
We have addressed some of the concerns raised by the NPAA on our FAQs page
John Nelson, Chair of the National Police Autism Association (NPAA)
Being Autistic in a Non-Autistic World
In situations where they are vulnerable, autistic adults should be protected and safeguarded from misunderstanding, neglect, discrimination and abuse. Paradoxically, those most at risk are often the ones at the higher functioning end of the autistic spectrum. This is precisely because they may outwardly pass, and often want to pass, as non-autistic. These folk are more likely to have their behaviours perceived and misrepresented as anti-social rather than autistic because they spend a good part of their day out in the community, away from the family home or care system. As long ago as 1993, American researchers identified that autistic people were seven times more likely to be arrested than non-autistic people, yet other research suggests that, of those arrested, the percentage of young people charged was significantly lower than for non-autistic youth. The stories of Bradley Grimes and Marcus Potter well illustrate this phenomena of the 'invisible disability’.
"It can be hard for people to accept but people who confess are not always guilty."
Chris Bath, Chief Executive, National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN)
The autistic person is estimated to be one in every hundred of the general population, a figure that is likely to be significantly underestimated. The autistic person is vulnerable and encounters problems with everyday living usually, as they tell us, when they come into contact with ‘neuro-typical’ people. Left to themselves, and in the absence of those troublesome necessities of the modern world like managing bank accounts, a tenancy, or going through a job recruitment process (even though many can, and do), the autistic person can be entirely fulfilled and contented. But until there is a much greater degree of tolerance and understanding of autism, never mind properly funded and informed support services, the autistic person is particularly vulnerable to being criminalised for no other reason than being autistic.
To refer then to autism as a ‘disability’ should be turned on its head, in as much as it is the rest of human beings who fail to understand or tolerate those who think and communicate differently from themselves.There are of course striking examples of where the potential of the autistic mind has been recognised and harnessed with significant benefits, both for those involved and wider society, most notably Silicon Valley in California where to be autistic is pretty much the norm. Then there is an entire unit of the Israeli army made up of autistic recruits engaged in high level intelligence work tracking computer generated satellite images. Many arts and sciences university campuses are also likely to be autism friendly environments. Yet such examples as these do nothing to enhance the lives of the majority of people on the autistic spectrum who continue to be disabled by the neuro-typical world’s ignorance and discrimination of the autistic brain.
Autistic Behaviours are not Criminal Behaviours
We would not arrest a blind person for bumping into us in a public space, or someone with Tourette syndrome for shouting at us—though no doubt this has happened too. If someone is experiencing an autistic meltdown, freezes, shouts or lashes out, look at what provoked such behaviour in the first place. Extreme fear and panic do not equal aggressive or anti-social behaviour; they are situations that require a calm presence to de-escalate the situation, not, as in Max's Story, being shot with a taser gun and knocked to the ground. In most cases then, autistic behaviour is NOT criminal, it is only perceived and treated as such because of ignorance, and sometimes malicious intent.
Repetitive and compulsive autistic behaviours, of which the individual is often unaware is offending other people, should be contextualised and understood, not criminalised. People understand Tourettes and other neurological behaviours that may be perceived as ‘odd’, so why do they refuse to understand autism; and why should odd behaviour be perceived as criminal?
Research suggests that the percentage of autistic people who commit crime is likely to be lower than that for the neuro-typical population. This is precisely because having a strong moral compass and following rules is a common feature of autism. That the autistic person does not always understand social rules and is unable to defend themselves with language when they transgress them, is not of itself criminal because in many cases, 'mens rea': the knowledge of and intention to commit a crime, is absent.
The fact that there may be a higher percentage by ratio of autistic to non-autistic people in Britain's prisons, is alarming and requires an urgent review. In particular, those whose convictions are based on evidence produced from unlawful police interviews at which no 'appropriate adult' was present, coercion was used, failure to provide 'reasonable adjustments', and other perversions of the course of justice—SEE DISCUSSION AT BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE ON THE POLICE & CRIMINAL EVIDENCE ACT (PACE) AND UNRELIABLE CONFESSIONS
Problems with the Police Responding to a Mental Health Crisis?
The police frequently complain in the press that pressures on NHS budgets means that, by default, they have become a frontline mental health service. But that is no excuse for behaving in the barbaric way they sometimes do (again see Max's Story). They have clear statutory and other guidelines to follow, such as The Bradley Report which recommendations diversion away from arrest and custody to clinical services when the person has either declared—or its obvious that they are suffering from—some kind of mental vulnerability. Yet it is obvious from the stories on this site that even where someone produces an autism alert card or is displaying signs of distress or sensory overload, the full force of the law—restraint, arrest, detention—often kicks in with all of the human misery and waste of public money that results.
Why do police still not bother to request an ‘appropriate adult’ when presented with someone who clearly has a prescribed ‘protected characteristic’? PACE requires them to do this by law (SEE EXCERPTS FROM PACE AT BOTTOM OF PAGE) but as is clear from the stories on this site, the police often fail in this most basic of rights.
The internet is awash with safeguarding policies and guidelines, including those published or endorsed by the police such as the National Autistic Society’s, Autism: a guide for criminal justice professionals and Autism: a guide for police officers and staff. The fact that 'safeguarding' as a word has now entered even the police's lexicon is meaningless, as many police officers still do not have a clue what safeguarding means, never mind how to practice it. This is typical of the bankruptcy of political rhetoric; if we repeat something often enough people will believe we understand and practice it.
Even the lawmakers themselves seem to be confused about these issues. In a recent debate in the UK Parliament titled 'Treatment of adults with autism by the criminal justice system', in response to a question about safeguarding autistic adults within the criminal justice system, and clearly mixing up 'liaison and diversion' with the use of section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983, the Policing Minister responding to the debate commented that, "Use of such powers [sec. 136] might be appropriate in the case of a person with autism." There are in fact NO circumstances that a section 136 should be used to take an autistic person to a place of safety—unless they have a co-occurring mental illness, and only then, if they were posing a risk to themselves or others. It seems that even the Minister was not aware that autism is not a mental illness.
Autism is not any kind of illness, and certainly not something that would respond to ‘treatment’. The criminal justice system and statutory health & social services continue to operate in two entirely separate universes of discourse. More often than not its the first refusing to have a dialogue with the second because they are too pumped up to stop and realise that the ‘criminal’ they think they’ve been called out to restrain may actually be a victim in need of safeguarding and support. The unacceptable numbers of deaths in custody of people with a diagnosis of mental illness in the UK already testifies to this. In light of a Parliamentary debate in November 2017 which drew on recent research that autistic people are nine times more likely than the average population to take their own lives, imagine the suicide risk in autistic prisoners, particularly if they are a young person.
The Discrimination of Autistic People
Fifty years ago, homosexual behaviour in Britain was finally de-criminalised and de-pathologised, even though the open discrimination of LGBT people and medical intervention to change people’s sexual orientation continued. And while that discrimination may still exist today, there are strict penalties against those who publicly express it.
So it is with racial discrimination. That in living memory, the attempt to murder an entire ethnic population (as well as disabled people and those who were autistic—as identified by Asperger himself) could be authorised by the state of one of the most ‘civilised’ nations in the West, now seems like science fiction. But let’s not kid ourselves that such behaviour is a phenomenon of history, the world may have advanced scientifically but there is little evidence that human nature has kept pace with those advancements.
James Boswell wrote in his Life of Samuel Johnson that, "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilisation.” Many others have revived versions of this truism, including American President Jimmy Carter when he stated that, “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens [not that autistic people should be characterised in this way]” But if we accept such maxims at face value, then Britain is fast descending into a very uncivilised period of its history indeed.
But to return to autism, in spite of the Autism Act 2009, the criminalising and pathologising of autistic behaviour remains one of the last areas of discrimination in the UK not to be vigorously outlawed. Statutory services such as local authorities, the NHS and the police, frequently discriminate against autistic people without challenge.
For years, mental health services were described as the ‘cinderella service’ of the NHS, receiving proportionally the least resources—and to some extent still do. But compared to dedicated autism services (only now slowly emerging on a piecemeal and tokenistic basis), mental health services are a well protected, statutory mainstream provision. The same goes for national policy and strategy documents. Autism is often only referred to briefly as an afterthought or add-on to mainstream documents written for other disability groups such as the mentally ill or people with learning disabilities—whose clinical practitioners are often woefully ignorant of autism or the risks associated with it. But autism is neither a mental illness or a learning disability, and unless co-occurring with one of those other disabilities, people with autism are excluded altogether from those more protected services. Only a revised, universal Autism Act that gives people real rights rather than merely good intentions, together with the implementation of Lord Bradley’s proposals on 'liaison and diversion' into law (with specific reference to autism), will ensure that autistic people can no longer be denied support, discriminated against and criminalised in the manner they currently are today.
To those who say—and they frequently do say—"Autism is not an excuse for criminal behaviour", of course it isn't, but the assumption is back to front. Those same people should take a long, hard look at the evidence, apply a bit of humanity and common sense, and ask themselves, "was the behaviour criminal at all or was the behaviour normal and understandable in the context of the person's disability and what triggered the behaviour in the first place?" In other cases, such as Panda's, he was arrested simply because he fitted some kind of profile of a terrorist suspect with no evidence to support it.
Perspective of Family and Friends
Imagine one day getting a phone call out of the blue that your child, sibling, close friend, etc.—who has had to have support and adjustments all through school—has been arrested and is in a police cell. Imagine further that the young person has no outward signs of disability but is mentally vulnerable and unable to speak up for themselves, either freezes completely or becomes highly agitated when frightened and is likely to say things to people in authority that they think they want to hear, just to please them. And then, if the police bother to contact you at all, they then refuse to let you see or speak to your child, sibling, close friend, ignore your protests that they are autistic, don't understand what autism is or think that its just some made up excuse, and then proceed to use all the powers at their disposal to charge the person with a criminal offence you know is absurd but are powerless to do anything about.
This is the beginning of a kafkaesque nightmare affecting possibley hundreds of families, whose children end up with anything from a trumped up charge for a minor offence, accepting a caution when they don't even understand what a caution is or its consequences, to serving a life sentence for a murder they did not commit. Following the initial shock you go into action. You believe you live in a just and civilised society, that a terrible mistake has been made, and that once the true facts of the situation are made known everything will be put right and you will be able to get on with your life.
The disturbing facts of the individual stories related on this site are evidence that we do not live in a civilised society, that the powerful systems of the state: the police, CPS, IOPC, ICO, and often sadly the judiciary themselves, do not always act in the intelligent and humane manner you might have hoped they would. Instead, they are often prepared to allow horrendous miscarriages of justice to continue simply to protect these grand institutions of the state from any suggestion that they may have got things wrong. They must be protected from criticism at all costs to give the impression that society is actually functioning and in safe hands.
This is Britain in the 21st Century, a reality described by director Ken Loach in his portrayal of the benefit system, I Daniel Blake, in which he presents State run organisations as a ‘monumental farce’ and what he describes as “intentional inefficiency of bureaucracy as a political weapon”. A more likely scenario is that relentless cuts to statutory services resulting from the Government's 'austerity' measures, has left these public bodies unable to deliver the services they were comissioned to provide. But instead of acknowledging this reality, adversarial complaints processes have been put in place to protect public services from criticism. The fall back position is, if you remain unhappy with the outcome of your complaint, go to judicial review—as though the most vulnerable in society have that option. Instead of protecting and safeguarding the vulnerable, which is the reason social workers, doctors, police officers, even the judiciary, came into their professions, for the most part they close ranks to protect the organisation that pays their wages but is no longer in any way functioning—in the process, adding to the abuse of the most vulnerable in society.
At worst, it is a mad world of unbelievable perversions, collusion and dirty tricks—behaviour that often goes all the way to the very top of these organisations and further, to those they themselves are accountable to in Government. If you do complain to ministers, they tell you that they cannot get involved in individual casework decisions and send you back down the snake to those you complained about in the first place. And so these public bodies, who are no longer able to deliver the services they were set up to provide, become even more dysfunctional and abusive in the full knowledge that no one is scrutinising them or holding them to account. How else could the systemic failures of justice described on this site be allowed to happen unchallenged.
See recent article in The Times
As if the battle that parents of autistic adults and children have to fight to safeguard their children—and get the support and services they are entitled to—is not hard enough, they can often find themselves demonised by the very 'professionals' who they trying to work with or hold to account, either for the delivery of services, or failures of care or justice. As long ago as the 1950s, and a prevailing theory of the time that 'refrigerator mothers' were responsible for their children's autism, some parents have faced similar allegations such as 'attachment disorder' or even 'Munchausens by proxy' (achieving some kind of personal benefit by presenting their children as disabled) as a defence against the impotence of professionals to provide proper safeguards and support.
Fortunately, there is a growing body of evidence and opinion that rather than blaming parents for their children's vulnerabilities, professionals should be recognising the unique contribution and expertise that parents, friends and carers provide and fully recognising and supporting them in the enormous task they often do to support their children, throughout adulthood when necessary, to maximise their safety, independence and potential for living fulfilled lives:
“there is a whole range of difficult-to-diagnose conditions in children—ADHD being one; Asperger's being another—where the symptoms are seized upon by adversarially minded social workers as a manifestation of abusive parenting.”
“Listening to the concerns of parents and taking them seriously at an early stage is fundamental to providing the right type of help for children, but very often that simply does not happen. However, worse still, we are increasingly seeing in schools and local authorities a culture of blame against parents.”
House of Lords debate from 5th Feb 2003
“The government is to investigate claims that increasing numbers of parents of children with Asperger's Syndrome are being falsely accused of abuse.”
"As opposed to working collaboratively with the family, many Local Authorities will go on the offensive. Any perceived challenge from parents will be a catalyst for Social Services involvement and a host of issues for them to face…”
“Mothers' attention to detail, logical thinking, and persistence, combined with a tendency to approach rather than avoid family problems, may increase the chances of parenting successes and therefore build a stronger sense of parenting efficacy.”
“The trauma caused to families is enormous, not to mention the waste of public funds. But then it is happening in some instances to avoid spending resources.”
POLICE AND CRIMINAL EVIDENCE ACT (PACE) and a note on the APPROPRIATE ADULT
concern about proposed changes to Pace, Code C, are described on Panda's website here
PACE Code G concerns the Police's power to arrest:
1.1 "The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for police officers to discriminate against, harass or victimise any person on the grounds of the ‘protected characteristics’ of age, disability, [etc.] —autism is a 'protected characteristic' under PACE
1.2 The exercise of the power of arrest represents an obvious and significant interference with the Right to Liberty and Security under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights set out in Part I of Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998.
1.3 The use of the power must be fully justified and officers exercising the power should consider if the necessary objectives can be met by other, less intrusive means. Absence of justification for exercising the power of arrest may lead to challenges should the case proceed to court. It could also lead to civil claims against police for unlawful arrest and false imprisonment. When the power of arrest is exercised it is essential that it is exercised in a non-discriminatory and proportionate manner which is compatible with the Right to Liberty under Article 5.
PACE Code C concerns the detention, treatment and questioning of suspects in police custody:
1.4 If an officer has any suspicion, or is told in good faith, that a person of any age may be mentally disordered or otherwise mentally vulnerable, in the absence of clear evidence to dispel that suspicion, the person shall be treated as such for the purposes of this Code. See Note 1G.
1G ‘Mentally vulnerable’ applies to any detainee who, because of their mental state or capacity, may not understand the significance of what is said, of questions or of their replies.
3.15 If the detainee is a juvenile, mentally disordered or otherwise mentally vulnerable, the custody officer must, as soon as practicable:
• inform the appropriate adult … of:
∼ the grounds for their detention;
∼ their whereabouts.
• ask the adult to come to the police station to see the detainee.
11.18 The following interviews may take place only if an officer of
superintendent rank or above considers delaying the interview will lead to
the consequences in paragraph 11.1(a) to (c), and is satisfied the
interview would not significantly harm the person’s physical or mental
state (see Annex G):
11C Although juveniles or people who are mentally disordered or
otherwise mentally vulnerable are often capable of providing reliable
evidence, they may, without knowing or wishing to do so, be particularly
prone in certain circumstances to provide information that may be
unreliable, misleading or self-incriminating. Special care should always be
taken when questioning such a person, and the appropriate adult should
be involved if there is any doubt about a person's age, mental state or
capacity. Because of the risk of unreliable evidence it is also important to
obtain corroboration of any facts admitted whenever possible. Paragraph
1.5A extends this Note to 17-year-old suspects.
2B. … In the case of juveniles, mentally vulnerable or mentally disordered
suspects, the seeking and giving of consent must take place in the
presence of the appropriate adult. …
11(c) ... except in cases of urgency, where there is risk of serious harm to
the detainee or to others, whenever a strip search involves exposure of
intimate body parts, there must be at least two people present other than
the detainee, and if the search is of a juvenile or mentally disordered or
otherwise mentally vulnerable person, one of the people must be the
1 If an officer has any suspicion, or is told in good faith, that a person of
any age may be mentally disordered or otherwise mentally vulnerable, or
mentally incapable of understanding the significance of questions or their
replies that person shall be treated as mentally disordered or otherwise
mentally vulnerable for the purposes of this Code. See paragraph 1.4 and
Here are the CPS's guidelines on "Confessions, Unfairly Obtained Evidence and Breaches of PACE".
Unreliable confessions were also given a broad interpretation by the Court of Appeal in R v Fulling:
NOTE: The final point here about Appropriate Adults failing to act properly is a serious concern. Few appropriate adults provided by the voluntary and statutory sector (as opposed to friends or relatives acting in that capacity) have the skills or training to understand the particular vulnerabilitIies of those who are autistic. This places the vulnerable adult at even greater risk. It is the same with the role of the Health Care Professional in custody suites. Nurses and doctors who are responsible for assessing whether a mentally vulnerable adult is fit for detention and interview, often have little or no knowledge of autism, or worse, have a close working relationship with the police. Same goes for Duty Solicitors called in by the police. And so even where PACE is properly followed, safeguarding often beaks down through lack of awareness, lack of training and skills, and sometimes even indifference.