Supporting autistic people in police custody

Patrick Sims, Project Development Officer at the National Autistic Society, explores how police officers can support autistic people in police custody and those that are witnesses. The article highlights key areas such as sensory sensitivities, differences in body language and communication, and the impact on the family.

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Author: Patrick Sims

Supporting autistic people in police custody

When someone is arrested, emotions can run high. People often find the whole experience traumatising regardless of the outcome. If you are autistic the effects of this interaction can be long lasting and far reaching - for you and your family.

This article will examine what processes and protocols may help police officers when they are working with autistic people as suspects, victims or witnesses. It will also highlight any systems and safeguards in place to protect autistic and other vulnerable people.

Being arrested

Being a police officer is an exceptionally difficult job, especially as the first responder. They are responsible for assessing the situation and identifying potential dangers (Debbaudt 2006). Understandably, in the spur of the moment anyone behaving “differently” will not necessarily be interpreted by police officers as anything other than a potential risk.

Body language and communication differences such as staring or not keeping eye contact or an unawareness of personal space (Northumberland County Council Communication Support, 2004) may arouse suspicion in a volatile situation. Therefore having officers well trained in autism and de-escalation is vital (Crane et al 2017, Debbaudt 2006).

An autistic person might be particularly sensitive to touch (Bogdashina 2003), therefore the use of physical restraint and handcuffs may cause an increased amount of pain (Crane 2017). 

Sensory sensitivities to lights and sirens may further increase anxiety and stress (Debaudt 2006).

Custody checklist – the A question

When arrested the custody sergeant will go through a checklist to assess the welfare of the detainee. It contains questions about mental health but does not ask about autism. A number of autistic people and their families feel very strongly that this is a huge oversight as police will be unable to identify their specific needs.

However a police officer that I contacted argued that it would be impossible to include every disability in the checklist, and ethically impossible to exclude some. In addition, the terminology used may cause confusion: autism, Asperger syndrome or ASD/ASC? A very literal autistic person may only respond affirmatively to the term that they use.

Whilst accepting this very experienced officer`s point to an extent, the current situation does not appear to be fair and is not meeting the needs of a very vulnerable group of people. 

Being in police custody

Police custody suites can be very frightening places for most people, but for an autistic person the distress can be considerable (Crane et al 2017). There can be environmental stressors such as:

  • harsh lighting
  • strong smelling cleaning agents
  • loud noises which can cause actual pain and feelings of nausea (Nyx et al 2011).

Some autistic people have very specific food issues, for example:

  • not being able to eat food of a certain colour or texture
  • not being able to eat food that has touched other food (Bogadashina (Nyx et al 2011, Bogdashina 2003).

The College of Policing has recommendations for meeting the speech and language needs of young people, and recommendations for including facilities and areas specific to their needs. These are positive moves but they need expanding to include autistic people of all ages.

Appropriate Adults

Police officers are required to call an appropriate adult (AA) to the police station if someone “mentally disordered or otherwise mentally vulnerable” is being detained (Jacobsen 2008; Waltz 2015).

The role of appropriate adults is to protect the welfare and rights of vulnerable suspects who may find it difficult to understand their legal rights and/or who could inadvertently provide inaccurate information (Leggett 2007).

There are a number of problems with the AA scheme however:

  1. It is not always easy for police officers to know when a person requires this service.
  2. A general lack of police understanding about the AA scheme and a lack of easy access to appropriate adults.
  3. Some autistic people reported that their AA did not offer them much support and did not seem to contribute anything (Leggett et al (2007).

Interviewing autistic people

The police tend to use a Cognitive Interviewing (CI) technique as they feel it enables witnesses to recall more details. When this technique is used with autistic people however, they remember “far fewer details with less accurate facts” (Maras & Bowler, 2010).

When using a Standard Interview technique however, research has found that autistic people and neurologically typical people did equally well (Maras & Bower, 2010). The authors warn that professional investigators should be cautious of using CI to question autistic witnesses.

Police officers also need to understand that autistic people will have communication difficulties that may include:

  • problems related to listening and attention
  • processing delays: hearing, understanding and responding (The Advocates Gateway 2013).
  • being very literal in their understanding and interpretation of language.

All of these factors should be taken into account when questioning an autistic person (Saeki and Powell 2008, The Advocates Gateway 2016).

Impact on the family

The final issue to be covered is probably the most difficult and is not readily covered in academic research: the range of emotions experienced by the parents of autistic young people who have committed a crime. There can be a feelings of:

  • guilt, focussed on not being there to have steered their child away from the circumstances or confusion that led to the offence
  • anger at society and organisations for not offering appropriate, timely support leading up to the offence.
  • wishing that they could make the victim, in the eyes of the law, understand that their child is not a “bad person” and that “they need help and support”.


It is going to be difficult to be original in this conclusion because what is needed is for the police and other criminal justice professionals to have better awareness and understanding of autism. This requires increased and better training in autism.

We also need an education and social care system that is able to support autistic people, and to teach them from a young age to understand and embrace their autism so that we prevent some incidents from occurring. This is not supposed to sound inspirational or pie-in-the-sky: these are in theory very obtainable goals and with the right funding (or rather, investment), they could be achieved.


The Advocates Gateway (2016) “Planning to question someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder including Asperger Syndrome”- Toolkit 3: Lexicon Limited

Bogdashina, O. (2003) “Sensory perceptual issues in autism and Asperger syndrome”. London: Jessica Kingsley publishers.

Crane, L. (2017). “Autism: A guide for Police Officers and Staff”. National Autistic Society: London.

Debbaudt, D. (2006). Autism and first response. Autism Advocate, 2nd edition

Howlin, P (2004, 2nd ed.) Autism and Asperger syndrome: preparing for adulthood. Routledge: London

Jacobson, J. (2008). No one knows - police responses to suspects with learning disabilities and learning difficulties: a review of policy and practice. London: Prison Reform Trust

Leggett, J., Goodman, W., Dinami, S., (2007). People with learning disabilities` experiences of being interviewed by the police, British Journal of Learning Disabilities 35 p. 168-173: Blackwell Publishing Limited

Maras, K., Bowler, D. (2010) Reliable witness?, Communication Magazine, p.21, The National Autistic Society

Medford, S., Gudjonsson, G. and Pearce, J. (2003), The efficacy of the appropriate adult safeguarding during police interviewing, Legal and Criminological Psychology, 8, pp253-266

Nyx, E. et al (2011) Self-Advocacy booklet for adults on the autism spectrum. London: The National Autistic Society

Parsons, J., Sims, P. (2nd Ed 2010) Advocacy for adults with autism spectrum disorders. London: The National Autistic Society.

Saeki, M., Powell, A (2008). Social Care Assessment of need for adults with an autism spectrum disorder. London: The National Autistic Society

Northumberland County Council Communication Support (2004). Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Practical strategies for teachers and other professionals. London: David Fulton Publishers

Waltz, M. (2015) In the event of arrest Autism Eye, issue 18, pp.30-33.

Wing, L. (1996) “The Autistic Spectrum: a guide for parents and professionals. London: Robinson

Date added: 26 June 2017