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Autism awareness training for police custody staff launched by university and police

Friday, 10 January 2020

Being in police custody can be a frightening place for many people – but even more so for those with autism, where the distress can be considerable.

Often such suites have harsh lighting, smell strongly of cleaning agents and can be loud and noisy.

For most people this is just part of the process, but for those who are diagnosed as autistic this can have a significant effect. Now a new Autism Toolkit has been created by academics from the University of Nottingham in partnership with the police and a group of people with autism. 

Nottinghamshire Police are in the process of building a new £17m custody facility in Radford, Nottingham, which is expected to be operational within the next two years. This will be one of the first in the country to ensure the suite is suitable for people with autism.

The new guidelines and training programme have come about through this unique collaboration between the university and the police along with autistic people who are part of the Nottingham Autism Police Partnership (NAPP). Between them they have created the first evidence-based training and information guides to help the police support autistic detainees in their custody.

The guide was launched today (Friday 10 January) by Nottinghamshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Paddy Tipping. He said: “It’s important that people are treated with respect and sensitivity when they come into contact with the police.  Autistic people often do not ‘look’ disabled and sometimes their responses can be misinterpreted, which can be extremely stressful for anyone affected.

“That’s why I support the work to ensure that officers are made aware of the signs of autism and receive training to help them respond appropriately.  I’m proud to see Nottinghamshire is at the forefront of this work.”

Research undertaken by Dr Chloe Holloway, from the University of Nottingham’s School of Law, has shown  that people with autism can find the custody environment so stressful that they may waive their legal rights to a lawyer or sign an admission of guilt  to  get out of there.   

Dr Holloway said: “My in-depth interviews with autistic people  who had been taken into police custody found  they were  confused  about what was happening  to them during their arrest  due to difficulties with communication and a lack of accessible information. The conditions of the custody suite – bright lights and loud noise – also made them very anxious. The materials developed for the ’toolkit’ are  based on my findings and they have been designed to  meet the priorities of both staff and those  in detention.”  

The Nottingham Autism Police Partnership (NAPP) was set up to identify how the challenges outlined by Dr Holloway’s research could be addressed. The main aim of the group was  to refine and develop an autism training package and video for custody staff, as well as create resources for custody staff  and  autistic people.  

For autistic individuals  the ‘Autism Toolkitt ’ includes a  booklet  which explains what will happen in custody  and information on legal rights. Pictures  and diagrams are used  to make it easier to understand the process.   

Police and custody staff  have access to  an autism training guide. This has been written  to help improve their understanding of  the  difficulties autistic people may  encounter  during key parts of the custody process such as personal searches  and cell detention,  and what adjustments they can make to help support autistic people during these processes.  

Nick Clarke is a member of the NAPP and has drawn on his personal experiences to help develop the toolkit. He was arrested for Actual Bodily Harm in 2005 and recalls police custody as like being ‘marooned’.  

He said: “I did not have a clue what is going on after being arrested for doing something that I did not realise was wrong.

“I struggle with too much verbal and written information. It makes my head go into a spin with all the words going into a bin. I prefer visual aids or written information using flowcharts, diagrams, or symbols. So, the NAPP has been a great success pairing up autistic people and police officers to raise the importance of autism awareness in police custody.” 

Supt Paul Winter, from Nottinghamshire Police Force added: “Research indicates that autistic people are no more likely to commit an offence or be arrested than the general population. However, it is clear that their experience of being arrested can result in very high levels of distress. Things such as bright lights, loud noises and change of environment can all increase anxiety in a way that is different to non-autistic people.

“That is why it is great to be part of this process as having now identified this as an issue we can ensure we put appropriate training into place with all our officers and as a consequence deliver better outcomes.

“And the new custody suite being built is an ideal opportunity for is to invest time into getting the suite right. The new suite will include a quieter area, low level lighting, matt painted walls and neutral tones.

“The evidence shows that if we get this right then we will be able to deal with situations much more effectively with all concerned.”

The ‘Autism Toolkit’ will be free  to access by request for all police forces in the UK.   

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For more information please contact Dr Chloe Holloway via email chloe.a.holloway@outlook.com or Emma Rayner, Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Arts on +44 (0)115 951 5793 emma.rayner@nottingham.ac.uk 

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