Find out more about Asperger's Syndrome

Adrian was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 13. Adrian was not alone, some one million people in the UK have an Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) which is about 1 in 100 people. Although not alone, Adrian was the only person of his age in Tenbury with Asperger’s.

People with an ASC have trouble with communication, social interaction and social imagination. In addition, they may have sensory difficulties and some coordination problems. Their odd behaviour can sometimes draw unnecessary attention, but in general ASC is a hidden disability and it may not be immediately obvious to the public or people in the Criminal Justice Syndrome (CJS) that someone with ASC has special needs.

People with ASC can find themselves in contact with the CJS for a variety of reasons.

Offences relating to social naivety. For example, the desire to have friends has led some people with ASC to be befriended by, and become unwitting accomplices of, criminals. People with ASC often do not understand the motives of other people.

Offences of an aggressive nature. These are often related to an unexpected change in routine or to the environment, which may cause great anxiety and distress. A typical example would be a delay in public transport.

Offences relating to a misunderstanding of social cues. For example, many people with ASC have difficulties with eye contact, which is often avoided or may be fleeting. In some cases, eye contact may be prolonged or inappropriate and on occasion, this has been interpreted as making unwanted sexual advances.

People with ASC often adhere rigidly to rules. They may become extremely agitated if other people break these rules. For example, one man with ASC kicked cars that parked illegally.

People with ASC often do not understand the implications of their behaviour and due to their difficulties with social imagination, they often do not learn from experience. They may repeatedly offend if not offered the correct support and intervention.

In addition, the methods used by the police may exacerbate a situation for someone with ASC. For example, the use of handcuffs and restraint may be extremely frightening for someone with ASC who does not understand what is happening and may not be able to communicate their fears in an appropriate way. This, coupled with the use of loud sirens, may cause an individual to experience sensory overload and try to escape a situation by running away or, in extreme circumstances, hitting out at people, including the police. The very presence of the police may cause great anxiety to a law-abiding person with ASC who has no comprehension of the crime they may have committed.

Criminal acts carried out by people with ASC can be due to a variety of factors, but there is rarely a deliberate intention to hurt others.

Initial contact with the police can be very frightening for somebody with an ASC. Should you need to advise the police on how to approach someone with ASC the following would be sensible suggestions.

  • Switch off sirens and flashing lights.
  • Keep calm. People with ASC can often sense anxiety in other people, which in turn can make them more anxious.
  • People with ASC may not understand personal space. They may invade your personal space, or they may need more personal space than the average person.
  • Approach the person in a non threatening way and keep facial expressions and gestures to a minimum.
  • If you know the person’s name, use it at the start of each sentence so that they know you are addressing them.
  • Give clear, slow and direct instructions. For example, “Jack, get out the car”.
  • Allow the person time to process information and don’t expect an immediate response to instructions.
  • Avoid using sarcasm, metaphors or irony. People with ASC may take things literally.
  • Do not shout at the person with ASC.
  • Make sure you explain clearly to the person what is happening. If you are taking them somewhere else, clearly explain where they are going to lessen their anxiety.
  • People with ASC often understand visual information better than spoken words. It may be useful to use visual supports to explain to the person with ASC what is happening or, if they can read, to put it in writing. More information on this is available from the Autism Helpline (see details below).
  • If possible, avoid touching the person.
  • Do not attempt to stop the person from flapping or from other repetitive movements as this can sometimes be a self-calming strategy and may subside once things have clearly been explained to them.
  • Check the person for any injuries in as non-invasive way as possible. They may not be able to communicate if they are in pain.
  • The police have the power to stop people in the street and may ask straightforward questions about a person’s name, address and where they are heading. However, police must caution an individual before they can question them about a suspected offence.
  • The police can search a person, their bag or vehicle if they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that they may find: stolen goods, a knife or other weapon, something that could be used to commit a crime; for example, someone else’s credit card, drugs.
  • Strip and intimate searches can only take place if a person is reasonably suspected to be hiding drugs or articles that may cause physical harm. An officer of the same sex must carry out strip and intimate searches. An appropriate adult must be present if the individual is aged under 17 or deemed to be a vulnerable adult. A record of the search must be kept and a copy of this can be obtained from the police station if required.
  • If a person is arrested they must be informed of the reason. Reasonable force may only be used to detain someone if they attempt to resist or escape, which in the case of people with ASC is a possibility.
  • Once a person has been detained, they become the responsibility of the custody officer. While detained at the station people have the following basic rights.
  • An interpreter if English is not their first language.
  • An appropriate adult; for example, a family member or someone from the appropriate adult scheme if the detainee is aged under 17 or is deemed to be a vulnerable adult by the Custody Officer. Appropriate adults are usually volunteers. Their role is to look after the welfare of the detainee. They are not able to offer legal advice, and usually do not have any training in ASC.
  • Notification of the arrest to a relative or friend.
  • The right to speak to a solicitor in private. If a person does not have their own solicitor they can speak to a duty solicitor. In many cases, people with ASC will refuse the services of a solicitor as they do not understand their role and become even more confused when another stranger becomes involved.
  • A notice explaining further rights, called Criminal defence services at the police station and in court will be given to the detainee. A full copy of this can be downloaded from the following website: www.legalservices.gov.uk.
  • Custody officers have to ask everyone that comes into their custody whether they have a special need. Most people with ASC will reply no to this question, as it is not specific enough for them to understand. By the time the individual is at the police station it is absolutely essential that the person with ASC, or a relative, has informed the police that the person has ASC, as custody officers are rarely able to recognise the condition. However, if the custody officer does suspect the detainee may have a special need, the following process will be triggered.
  • The Force Medical Officer will be called (usually a local GP, often with limited knowledge of ASC) whose main role is to decide whether the individual is fit to be interviewed.
  • If the Force Medical Officer feels a psychiatric assessment is necessary, a duty social worker who is qualified to make an assessment under section 12 of the Mental Health Act will be called to make an assessment. Social workers often have only limited training in ASC and may not recognise if someone has the condition.
  • If the social worker identifies any difficulties, two signatures will be required from psychiatrists in order to take the person out of the CJS and into the mental health system. This does not necessarily mean that the individual will be sectioned.

Police interviews

The police may interview a person about suspected involvement in an offence before any charge is made. The interview will be taped and the interviewee is entitled to have a legal representative present during the interview.

Due to the difficulties people with ASC have with communication and social interaction, any police interview can be extremely difficult. The person may appear very able, with a good or even exceptional vocabulary, and there may be no reason for an interviewing police officer to suspect that the interviewee requires special help. However, the officer may later find they receive blunt answers, the subject is changed and the individual is reluctant to make direct eye contact. The literal way in which people with ASC interpret language can lead to them giving incorrect answers or becoming anxious. All these things contribute to an assumption of guilt. Indeed many of the key interrogation techniques used by interviewers could inadvertently elicit false confessions from a person with ASC.

The following are suggestions for interviewing people with ASC in a manner that they may understand, and which should help elicit the correct response:

  • Keep language that is clear, concise and simple.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Use the person’s name at the start of each sentence so they know they are being addressed.
  • Avoid the use of any irony, sarcasm or metaphors, as these will be taken literally.
  • Ask specific questions that avoid ambiguity.
  • Be aware that the person with ASC may simply repeat back the question they were asked.
  • If asked a yes or no question, a person with ASC may repeat back the first or last word said with no understanding of the question. Dennis Debbaudt (2002) suggests asking a series of yes or no questions to determine the style and dependability of the response, and then following this up with the key yes or no questions you require an answer to.
  • Allow the individual extra thinking time to process the information.
  • Keep your facial expressions and hand gestures to a minimum.
  • The use of visual supports may be helpful.
  • The individual may need frequent breaks. Explain clearly that he or she is going to have a break for a specified amount of time and what will happen next. Signs that the person is becoming anxious and in need of a break may include repetitive speech, hand-flapping or other repetitive movements, self-injury such as hand biting, shouting or physical behaviour.

In all cases we would advise that a specialist in the field of autism, such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, be contacted. The National Autistic Society Helpline (0808 800 4104) keeps a database of people who may be suitable to contact for this purpose. Visit their website: http://www.autism.org.uk

Dennis Debbaudt (2002) has a useful chapter on the interview and interrogation of people with ASC in his book, which we would suggest police officers read before interviewing someone with ASC.