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We welcome blogs from anyone with an opinion of issues in or affecting the police service, providing they are not party political, defamatory or containing inappropriate language.

Today's blog is from Claire Hughes, Project Manager for the National Autism Society (NAS), the UK's leading charity for people affected by autism (including Asperger syndrome).

Why do police services need to know anything about autism? We at the National Autistic Society (NAS) believe there are two main reasons. Firstly, it’s more prevalent than is often realised. More than one in a hundred people have autism so officers will come in to contact with people with autism. Secondly, it’s likely that the social difficulties and behaviour that can be perceived as unusual, which are often the result of the extreme anxiety and fear they often feel about an incomprehensible world, will bring some people with the condition into direct and potentially problematic contact with police and the criminal justice system.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects thousands of people in the UK. It’s a spectrum disorder, which means the condition impacts on people’s lives in different ways. Some people with autism may have profound learning disabilities and be unable to talk, some will experience acute sensory sensitivities, others may be prone to self-harm or may use alcohol or drugs to cope with the challenging way they view the world.

Although some people with autism will have learning disabilities, others will have average to above average IQ. Those with higher IQ are referred to as ‘high functioning’ people and include those with Asperger syndrome. They are less likely to have problems verbalising– although they can have rigid behaviours and rituals – and may be able to live independently in the community.

Common to all, however, are difficulties with perception that result in an inability to make sense of the social world. This means that people with autism are often unaware of the consequences of their actions or the effect their behaviour will have on others. Their ‘social blindness’ can also lead them to mistake dangerous, exploitative relationships for friendships.

Understanding autism better can impact directly on police practice. When a young Surrey girl with autism went missing, the police were called in to search for her. Officers found her fairly quickly but when she caught sight of them she ran off. The pursuit lasted for four miles until one officer realised why she was running: she hadn’t registered her pursuers as people. The police were dressed in bright yellow, fluorescent coats but she was only aware of large shapes, in flashing colours, hurtling towards her and was terrified. It was only after the lead officer removed his coat that she stopped running.

Also, their particular vulnerabilities can mean people with autism get drawn into trouble. We’re aware of cases where groups of people have taken advantage of a person with autism, using their flats to drink, take drugs and generally engage in anti-social behaviour, causing the police to become involved. One individual inadvertently became a drugs courier because he didn’t understand the implications of his actions and thought that the local gang member was his friend; friends were something he desperately wanted.

Greater understanding of autism and the application of evidence-based techniques on the ground will vastly improve interactions between the police and people with the condition.

At NAS, we’re pleased at the initiatives being taken across police services to improve understanding of autism among front line and other staff in key positions, such as awareness training and the Pegasus database used by Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Surrey amongst others.

Pegasus, which contains the names, addresses and information volunteered by people with a disability who find it difficult to give information via the spoken word, can be of enormous help to people with autism in a time of crisis.

Staff who want to share experiences and ideas and to learn how they can improve standards in their interactions with people with autism, should attend our forthcoming event. On 10 – 11 April, we are holding a two-day conference on the care of offenders with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The conference will feature presentations from some of the world’s leading researchers and practitioners in the fields of psychology and forensic psychiatry as well as new initiatives and best practice in the management of challenging behaviour.

This is a chance to learn strategies that will improve standards, increasing public confidence in the service. For more information on the conference:

For more information for criminal justice professionals: