Autistic individuals are estimated to be seven times more likely than the general population to come into contact with the Criminal Justice System. Research into how they are affected by police custody has led to new autism guidance for all police in the East Midlands, shaped the design of 'autism-friendly' custody cells, and changed police practice in supporting neuro-divergent individuals in custody.
- Research findings formed the basis of specialist autism training for over 80 police detention officers in Nottinghamshire, highlighting areas in the custody process where changes in practice were required. Following the training, police officers reported feeling better equipped to support autistic individuals, through changing practice such as asking direct, specific questions; avoiding physical touching during the custody process; and adapting the custody environment by adjusting lighting and reducing noise.
- Dr Holloway is assisting Nottinghamshire Police in designing a newly commissioned 50-cell custody suite, to ensure it meets the needs of neuro-divergent detainees (including individuals with ADD, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia) by reducing anxiety and stress. This includes dimmable LED lighting system; a display screen so detainees can see custody staff when they communicate with them; and specially designed tiles for visual and tactile stimulation.
- Guidelines for interacting with autistic individuals have been added to the policy document for all police in the East Midlands.
- The improved practice has increased cost-effective use of resources.
- A network of autistic individuals, academics and police officers – the Nottinghamshire Autism Police Partnership – has been established and meets regularly to refine and develop autism training and resources for detention officers and custody sergeants.
- The research has also been used to assist other police forces in changing their custody practices and environments.
"The research has provided better insight into the impact that being taken into custody has on people with autism, and what can be done to make the experience less traumatic and fairer." (Inspector Duncan Collins, Manager Nottingham Custody Project)
About the research
It is estimated that people with autism are seven times more likely than the general population to come into contact with the Criminal Justice System, due to the risk of miscommunication, misinterpretation and difficulties created by stress situations. They are particularly vulnerable in an unfamiliar custody environment – but although they are legally entitled to safeguards protecting their welfare and legal rights in police custody, there is no current UK policy about specialist autism training for the police.
For her ESRC-funded PhD research, Dr Chloe Holloway at the University of Nottingham investigated the difficulties that autistic individuals experience in police custody, the support they receive, and how the experience impacts on their lives afterwards. The project included a literature survey, interviews with autistic detainees, and a 'participative walkthrough' that simulated the custody process.
Autistic individuals in police custody reported negative experiences which affected their overall wellbeing and legal outcomes, compromising their right to access to justice on an equal basis with others. The experiences included confusion about what was happening during arrest and detention; high anxiety caused by sensory impacts such as bright lights and loud noises; and finding the custody environment so stressful overall that they waived their legal rights to a lawyer or signed an admission of guilt simply to speed up the process and be released.
"Following my PhD studies, it became apparent that there were a number of procedural and resource constraints that limited police officers’ ability to fully take on board our recommendations," says Dr Holloway. In response, she conducted joint focus groups with police officers and autistic individuals to develop a training programme that would be effective within the day-to-day constraints of police work.
"I aim to work with the National College of Policing to achieve policy changes which will support not just autistic individuals, but all detainees – ensuring that all police forces in the UK adopt best practices for supporting neuro-divergent individuals in police custody," adds Chloe Holloway.