policePolice and criminal justice professionals need training in autism because they find interviewing and interacting with witnesses and suspects with autism a real challenge, research has found.

The Economic and Social Research Council-funded research studied what does, and does not, work when police interview people with autism. It highlighted that the ways officers have been taught to interview are at odds with what is needed in these situations. For instance, existing interview techniques tend to focus on open questions, only later narrowing down to closed questions, but research shows that people with autism may need focused questions from the outset.

In response, the researchers – Dr Katie Maras from University of Bath and Dr Laura Crane from City University London – are calling for better training of police and criminal justice professionals as, at present in the UK, these groups currently have no standard compulsory training about autism.

"Police stations tend to be noisy with bright or flickering lighting and strange smells,” said Dr Maras. “But people with autism are often sensitive to sensory input and as a result they can struggle to maintain concentration in interviews.

"Laura Crane and I have heard of many cases where problems have arisen because police and other criminal justice professionals know very little about autism. Research in this area is still in its infancy, but it’s steadily accumulating. There’s a crucial need to get findings to practitioners to help them obtain the best evidence possible from people with autism.”

Challenges faced when obtaining evidence

More than 400 UK frontline and investigative police officers holding a variety of ranks provided information for the study. They spoke of the difficulties and challenges they encounter when obtaining written, oral and identification evidence. Officers reported, for example, finding it hard to build rapport with people with autism, which usually plays an important part in interviews. They also described difficulties in arranging a suitable environment for interviews.

But, more positively, the researchers also found examples of excellent practice, especially among police officers who were able to draw on their personal experience of the condition through familiarity with a family member or colleague with autism.

Additionally, related research shows that there are simple and effective strategies that can enhance the evidence that people with autism give and improve their credibility as witnesses. For example, providing information about a witness’s diagnosis can improve his or her perceived credibility; unusual and stereotyped behaviours can be attributed to autism – rather than a lack of credibility.

Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of charity Ambitious about Autism, agree with the call for more training: “It is disappointing that the police have no standard compulsorily training about autism,” she said. “The police and criminal justice professionals must take the needs of people with autism into account when interviewing them as a witness, victim or suspect. People with autism often need the police and criminal justice professionals to adapt their communication styles and the interview environments to be more understanding of their condition.

“Appropriate autism awareness training on how to work with people with autism will help break down the barriers and make the process less difficult for people on the spectrum to go through.”