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House of Commons Hansard
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Police Officer Training (Autism Awareness)
01 May 2019
Volume 659

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require police forces to train police officers in autism awareness; and for connected purposes.

There are at least 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK. The vast majority are law-abiding citizens, but, from time to time, they may come into contact with police officers—either as witnesses, victims, or alleged offenders—and neither the interests of justice nor those of autistic people themselves are served when there is no real understanding by officers of their difficulties.

Daniel Smith is a 25-year-old autistic man who ran to a police station for refuge after being beaten up in what was essentially a hate crime that occurred while he was chatting to some strangers in a park. He expected to find safety, but instead he found himself handcuffed, locked up for many hours and given two assault charges, despite telling the police officers he was autistic. It was a terrifying and distressing ordeal, during which he was refused contact with either his family, an appropriate adult or a medic, which he should have been allowed. It took a further and anxious six months before his case came to court. Thankfully, he was acquitted of all charges, but he was badly let down and is now, not surprisingly, frightened of the police.

The National Autistic Society told me that a recent survey showed that just 37% of police officers said they had had any autism training, but that 92% said they would find it useful. While there are training duties for health and social care professionals and the Government have just consulted on a new mandatory training programme, the same is not true for our police forces.

An untrained police officer is unlikely to understand the problems that many autistic people face and will probably be unable to imagine what it might be like for someone such as Daniel Smith to be questioned, accused or arrested. They will probably be unable to grasp the autistic person’s difficulties with social communication, such as problems with interpreting words, gestures and tone of voice. Often autistic people will not understand facial expressions, gestures or tone of voice, and they may interpret words quite literally. They often might just agree with what is said to them and so wrongly admit guilt. Police officers will probably be unable to grasp their difficulties with social interaction. Autistic people find it difficult to read other people or recognise or understand their feelings and intentions. As they may also often find it difficult to express their own emotions, they find engagement with society seriously challenging. They may appear insensitive, behave in socially inappropriate ways and generally appear odd in the way they react; they might look guilty.

Police officers will probably be unable to understand difficulties that autistic people have with changes to daily rules and routines. Autistic people may find comfort in daily routines and rules that can be safely followed in a world they perceive as confusing and unpredictable. They may struggle with changes to their routines. Police officers might not understand other things, such as their intensity or even obsessive interest in a particular subject or topic, which can become all-important to them and might sometimes put them in conflict with the law.

There are also all-important difficulties relating to sensory sensitivity. Autistic people are often over or under-sensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain. A busy, crowded room may become unbearable, for example, and unexpected noises can cause extreme anxiety or even physical pain. That can result in challenging behaviour or meltdown—an intense response when autistic people are overwhelmed, resulting in a temporary loss of control, which is very relevant to the conditions in a police station.

All those common characteristics of autistic people can combine to make them victims of crime, unwitting or unknowing offenders, or unreliable witnesses. Contact with the police will often come at a time of heightened anxiety, which is stressful for all of us but amounts to a crisis for someone on the autism spectrum.

It is now 10 years since the passing of the Autism Act 2009, which requires the autism strategy to exist. Although some progress has been made, many of our services still do not understand autism well enough, and that includes the police service. Some police forces have acknowledged this need, and some training takes place in some forces, but much more needs to be done. We believe that mandatory training would have many benefits for autistic people, for their families, and for police officers themselves.

If that happens, autistic people who are victims of crime, or witnesses, will be better understood and helped to explain what has happened to them and assist police with their inquiries. If they are suspected of committing a crime, they can be questioned in a way that enables them to understand what is happening and will not cause them more anxiety. If they are being arrested, a police officer may be able to better prepare them, and avoid dangerous and traumatic physical restraint. Reasonable adjustments such as the provision of a single cell, perhaps in a quieter part of the custody suite, could be arranged at the police station to help to prevent an autistic person from becoming overwhelmed by the sensory environment.

The police will feel more confident in their abilities to support autistic people in their communities. After all, there is one autistic person among every 100 people. Autistic people will be more confident that they and their needs will be understood, and that may make them more willing to come forward to assist police or report crimes.

Perhaps most important of all, inappropriate prosecutions leading to incarceration might be avoided if autism were better understood and recognised in the custody suite. Being arrested can be a sign of an autistic person in crisis—an autistic person whose needs are not being met. We already have far too many autistic people in prison. Some of them have not yet been diagnosed, and they will be diagnosed in very few of our prisons. How much better it would be if more such cases were dealt with through police referral to the liaison and diversion schemes that are now being developed to help offenders to understand their offences and not to repeat the offending behaviour. That would be far better than a prison sentence in some, if not all, cases.

The Bill will oblige the Government to create an autism understanding standard for police officers, outlining what good autism training looks like and what is expected of officers. On that basis, it will require the national policing curriculum in England and Wales, which currently requires training to protect vulnerable people—including people with mental health problems—to include autism, which will ensure that new police officers have the training that they need. It will require each police force to create an autism understanding continuing professional development programme, based on that standard. Establishing that will have a cost, and there will also be the cost of releasing officers to attend training, so the Government should establish a funding scheme.

As the Autism Act approaches its 10-year review, it is high time that the police service was required to make autism awareness training mandatory.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Ann Clwyd, Tonia Antoniazzi, Kevin Brennan, Dr David Drew, Dame Cheryl Gillan, Susan Elan Jones, Jeremy Lefroy, Ian Murray, Sir Mike Penning, Jim Shannon, Nick Smith and Tom Tugendhat. present the Bill.

Ann Clwyd accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed (Bill 386).