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Improving access to justice for autistic people

Through our research we have improved the experiences and treatment of autistic people when they encounter the Criminal Justice System.

A police officer looking at a wall of evidence
Autistic people were found to have negative experiences of the Criminal Justice System.

There are an estimated 700,000 people in the UK who have a diagnosis of autism. Autistic people think and communicate differently to other people and often need support with certain tasks or in challenging environments.

Being involved in the justice system and criminal proceedings will be a challenge for anyone, but this may be even more so for an autistic person, as they can:

  • find it hard to communicate with other people
  • become overwhelmed in busy and loud environments
  • feel anxious in an unfamiliar situation
  • take longer to process information and may perceive questions differently

Autistic people are substantially overrepresented in all Criminal Justice System (CJS) populations, as:

  • witnesses
  • victims
  • defendants

Findings from a series of research studies led by Dr Katie Maras from our Centre for Applied Autism Research and Department of Psychology highlight issues that arise when autistic people encounter the CJS, from both autistic and policing perspectives .

Lack of understanding and support

Dr Katie Maras' research identified negative experiences of autistic people within the CJS. These were often rooted in a lack of support for social communication difficulties, sensory sensitivities, and difficulties dealing with new and uncertain situations (core characteristics of autism), and the associated challenges faced by police officers carrying out their duties with autistic people.

Members of the autism community felt that police and other legal professionals often lack understanding about autism and fail to make appropriate adaptations to support their needs. The research found that many police officers felt poorly equipped to work with autistic people:

  • just 37% of the 394 officers who took part in our research had received prior training on autism
  • 92% felt role-specific training was needed

A disclosure paradox

Maras and her team found only a third of autistic individuals disclosed their diagnosis to police or CJS professionals, due to fears that their diagnosis would not make any difference to the support or adaptations that they received and may even result in negative perceptions and stigmatisation by police.

Critically, their subsequent work showed that, contrary to these concerns, knowledge of an individual’s autism diagnosis actually results in more positive perceptions and judgements about autistic individuals, both as witnesses and defendants.

Research carried out by Maras and colleagues at the Centre for Applied Autism Research also identified a significant relationship between autistic-traits and cybercrime. Critically, however, this work showed that the relationship between autism and cybercrime was driven by the higher IT skills that are associated with autism; once these IT skills were accounted for, an autism diagnosis was actually associated with a lower likelihood of engaging in cybercrime.

This research not only specified the key predictors of engaging in cybercrime, but follow-up interviews also detailed both cybercriminals’ motivations for engaging in cybercrime and the reasons for not engaging in cybercrime.

Rethinking the interviews

Maras and her team have identified that police interviews pose a particular problem for autistic people, and they developed a new 'Witness-Aimed First Account' (WAFA) interview model as part of this research.

Using this approach, rather than freely recalling the entire event in one go, the witness self-segments the event at the outset of the interview into more manageable ‘chunks’ of information, which they then recall in detail, piece-by-piece.

The team also developed other techniques for probing for further information from autistic witnesses, such as:

  • diagram-assisted questioning
  • instructional support to optimise accuracy

These techniques were also found to be beneficial for supporting officers in other areas of their roles within the police service, such as recruitment or promotion interviews.

A new approach to training

Maras' research led to active collaborations with various UK police forces, including Avon and Somerset Police. Researchers worked alongside the force to develop best practice for officers when working with autistic individuals in their different roles.

This includes a role-specific online autism training course covering topics on:

  • first response
  • custody
  • interviewing

This training is now mandatory for all frontline police staff in Avon and Somerset and there are plans to roll this out nationally to other forces. The content of the training is driven by Maras and her team's findings that have identified police training needs, their work on disclosure, and their research developing new interviewing techniques for autistic individuals.

Since the training has been implemented, there are signs of improvement in autism knowledge and awareness in officers, with recent evidence that there are changes to practice as a result.

Changing policing, changing policy

This research has changed not just how the police work with members of the autistic community, but also impacted on national policy.

This research has been included in national guidance from the National Autistic Society (NAS) Guidance for Criminal Justice Professionals. These guidelines have been sent to all UK police forces and are also currently being translated into different languages.

Maras was also in a cross-government working group for the refresh of the 2014 Adult Autism Strategy and was a witness on the 2019 Access to Justice inquiry session for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA).

The recommendations and research are referenced in the report, The Autism Act, 10 Years On: A report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism on understanding, services and support for autistic people and their families in England.

‘[These findings] have been invaluable in providing evidence for best practice for our officers and have had an impact on the Criminal Justice system in improving the treatment of autistic people and the reliability and credibility of their evidence.’
Adam O’Loughlin Force Lead for Autism (Avon & Somerset Police)

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