Autism Cymru helps to develop groundbreaking research project evaluating experiences of autistic youths in their encounters with the police in Wrexham and Flintshire|
WREXHAM, Wales: A new, groundbreaking research project quantifies and evaluates the experiences of young people with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) coming into the contact with the police in Wrexham and Flintshire.
A major thrust of the project has been to produce key recommendations for the police to enable and assist them in their task of identifying and preventing young people with an ASD from entering the criminal justice system. It could be argued that the pioneering model developed in the research could be of considerable benefit to other parts of Wales.
This research project is relevant to several of the "big issues" contained in the Welsh Assembly Government document, "Wales - A Better Country," and indeed to the key themes covered in the policy areas of the Social Justice and Regeneration Department.
Individuals with an autistic spectrum disorder have patterns of behaviour which, when displayed in public settings, can lead to misinterpretation by members of the public and also the police. In such situations, this behaviour may be construed as being anti-social, even threatening. This group, can therefore, experience considerable disadvantage and discrimination.
This aim of this project was to help the police better to understand the thinking and behavioural patterns of people with ASDs and to support such individuals and the communities in which they live. The project was about communities; the safety of individuals, and social equality and inclusion. The project arose from a partnership between the police and the voluntary sector.
The aims of the project are:
1. To identify the number of people with ASDs coming into contact with the Community Beat Officers; Custody Sergeants; School Liaison Officers; Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) and so on, within Wrexham and Flintshire.
2. To encapsulate some experiences of individuals and of the Police/YOT through small case vignettes and by gauging reactions to the Attention card scheme
3. To assess how the Police and YOT can increase their understanding of ASDs as the basis for aiding the effectiveness of the "Prevent and Deter" aspects of community policing
4. To produce key recommendations for action which can be realistically employed at a local level but which could also be used as a model throughout Wales
Currently in Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government is developing an All-Wales Strategy for Autistic Spectrum Disorders. However, while this will eventually be an all-age strategy, it is unlikely to make a big impact in those areas for which the WAG has limited devolved responsibility. One such area is the Criminal Justice System. During the development of the All-Wales Strategy for ASDs in early 2004, a sub-group consisting of Flintshire YOT, Police, magistrates, practitioners in the field and Autism Cymru met to focus on ASDs and the Youth Justice System. Following the inaugural meeting of this group, joint meetings between Autism Cymru and Wrexham & Flintshire Police have taken place with the support of local Assembly Members, Carl Sargent and Sandy Mewies
Wrexham and Flintshire Police acknowledge that, at some point, in the normal course of their duties, operational officers will deal with persons with learning disabilities and mental health issues including ASDs. At the moment, the majority of police officers will not have any knowledge of ASDs and, if even if they have, there is no point of contact for them to get advice on how to respond to such individuals appropriately. Ultimately, this research project aims to support the police by identifying how they can best prevent individuals with ASDs getting caught up with the Youth Justice System (often inadvertently). One aspect has been to discover the level of knowledge and experience that certain professionals have of ASDs, details of which are discussed in the research findings.
In October 2005, Autism Cymru - in partnership with North Wales Police (Eastern Division) - introduced an Attention Card Scheme for individuals with ASDs in Wrexham and Flintshire. Young People with ASDs can now carry a card (the Attention Card) which alerts police officers to their particular difficulties. Police stations at this time were also issued with posters alerting them to the existence of the card and information leaflets giving them details of the disability and suggesting ways in which they might help. Part of this project has been to evaluate the effectiveness of the card. The scheme now operates across the whole of North Wales and in Ceredigion (Dyfed Powys Police). To date, 341 cards have been issued in North Wales and 15 in Ceredigion. Details of the card holders are recorded on a database and held at Autism Cymru’s offices in Aberystwyth.
ASD is believed to affect 60 per 10,000 of the population. Within Wales, this means that around 20,000 of the population will fall within the autistic spectrum. The wider autism "community" in Wales is really very sizeable if one includes families and practitioners working in the field. Using published Census population data for the Wrexham and Flintshire area, it can be estimated that there are approximately 1,660 people with an ASD living locally. Many of these have not been clinically identified and may enter a wide range of generic public services especially in mental health and in the youth and adult criminal justice system. Here their needs are often neither recognised nor met.
Sometimes, individuals with ASDs might come into contact with the Criminal Justice System (CJS) because of the nature of their social difficulties, their trusting and open personality, their particular "special interests" or their sensitivity to sensory experiences.
Sometimes, the problems may be exacerbated following a crime because of perceived anti
social behaviour of the individual with ASDs. For example, in a situation that involved interaction with a police officer they could:
• Behave in an extremely socially inappropriate way;
• Cause offence without being aware they are doing so;
• Appear aloof, rude, egocentric or insensitive;
• Not know how to react to certain unknown situations and other people’s feelings;
• Have difficulty understanding and using non-verbal communication;
• Not like being touched;
• Have extreme intolerance to certain sounds and smells or other sensory stimuli;
• Take things literally or
• Not be able to understand implied meaning or follow a long set of instructions.
The researchers spoke to a group of youngsters about their experiences with the police. Some of them had found themselves in situations where their social communication had led to misunderstandings. For example, one young man said: “I have been in trouble and they (the police) thought I was being cheeky but I was just being honest."
When asked by a police officer: "Do you promise never to do this again?" one young man had answered: "No, I do not know if I will ever do it again." In his mind, he did not want to make a promise that he truly did not know if he would be able to keep. Another, when asked if he had been involved in a shop lifting incident, answered: "Yes." He had not committed the crime but he had been in the shop at the time when the incident occurred. His interpretation of the word "involved" was very different from that of the police officer. In short, therefore, individuals with an ASD may appear to be behaving in an unco-operative way when actually they are trying to be as open and honest as they can be.
This research was undertaken by Brad Nicholas, from Bangor University, who is skilled in research methodology. The techniques involved have included a l