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INSIGHT:

Permission to be me: Autism and the police service

Woman police community support officer walking through Hereford City Centre, UK. Rear view of female CSO with male colleague.

Last week was National Autism Awareness Week during which the National Police Autism Association (NPAA) published a number of powerful blogs dispelling some myths around autism and raising awareness. The blogs reveal how one force has changed its approach to detainees with autism, but also how officers who have been diagnosed with autism manage their lives and their jobs.

Claire Masterton is NPAA Vice-Chair and a Sergeant with Police Scotland. Here she explains what it means to be autistic and the benefits it brings to policing.

I’m a Sergeant in Police Scotland. I have nine and a half years’ service. A couple of months ago I moved into a departmental role, however until that point I had been in frontline operational policing for my entire career. I’m currently waiting for an Inspector promotion interview, having been supported by line managers and my Senior Management Team for promotion, as – well – competent. I’m a qualified Police Incident Officer. A response driver. I’m public order trained. I do all the things you do every day.

I’m also autistic.

I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in 2015, aged 33. I was a Response Sergeant at the time at a very busy station with a team of 13. I’d self-diagnosed a few years before that after happening across an article on Asperger’s and recognising myself in every single aspect described. It was a lightbulb moment – where everything I’d found hard, everything I’d struggled with suddenly made sense. I did some reading and found out more about Asperger’s – that it is a form of autism – and was happy to leave it at that, just knowing a little bit more about myself, knowing there was an explanation.

My Chief Inspector recently spent a day thinking she’d gravely offended me because I didn’t get my facial expression ‘right’ during our conversation – I thought I was portraying ‘interest’ which apparently came across as ‘deadpan angry’!

PS Claire Masterton, Vice-Chair, NPAA

Did you know that more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are autistic? That’s over 700,000. There are a lot more males than females diagnosed, although the number of women is rising. There are many reasons bandied about for this, including the argument that girls/women can hide their problems better and are therefore missed or not diagnosed.

The National Autistic Society (NAS) describes autism as: “a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them”. Some people don’t like the term ‘disability’ and prefer ‘condition’, but that’s a blog in itself…

To illustrate this for you, I went through my childhood sincerely believing that I must have missed the class at school that taught you how to make friends! Communication issues can be verbal or non-verbal, autistic people famously often struggle with body language or facial expressions – including their own. My Chief Inspector recently spent a day thinking she’d gravely offended me because I didn’t get my facial expression ‘right’ during our conversation – I thought I was portraying ‘interest’ which apparently came across as ‘deadpan angry’!

Autism is regarded as a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. It’s a lifelong condition: we were born this way, it’s not a disease, there’s no cause and no cure. We’re also all different. I might find things hard that another autistic person has no issue with (albeit we do share some common traits).

Masking

Autism is often described as a spectrum. It’s meant to indicate that there are many different parts to the condition, however it can leave people with the impression that there’s a straight line between ‘mild’ and ‘severe’ autism. This really isn’t the case, as some people who may not have many problems with one aspect of the condition might be really struggling in another area or might be ‘masking’.

I’ve gathered 36 years of experience in the world and I have learned how to behave in social situations. I’ve learned scripts and rules to help me to fit in. I’ve stood quietly at the back of the room until I worked out what to do. I’ve learned that if I smile and laugh a lot it disarms people and they like you.

PS Claire Masterton, Vice-Chair, NPAA

Masking is what we do to appear ‘normal’ – changing our natural behaviours to fit into the neurotypical (non-autistic) world. I do this a lot, and if anecdote is to be believed, so do many on the spectrum (particularly women). I’ve gathered 36 years of experience in the world and I have learned how to behave in social situations. I’ve learned scripts and rules to help me to fit in. I’ve stood quietly at the back of the room until I worked out what to do. I’ve learned that if I smile and laugh a lot it disarms people and they like you. I’ve learned that it’s polite to look at people when you’re speaking to them even though it makes my eyes water and it’s all I end up thinking about, losing focus on the conversation and probably missing important information.

Consider this: I assume many of you learned a language in school. Imagine being told you had to speak that language all day every day at work. You know some words, you can string a few sentences together, and as time goes on you’d get better at it. But it’s tiring, all that concentrating. You miss quite a lot of the conversation and you feel stupid sometimes when all the other people just seem to understand so easily. And when you get home at the end of the day you just want to relax, right? Just go back to your own language, not have to pretend you understand, not have to worry about missing stuff or focus so hard all the time. That’s what masking is like.

Masking got me my diagnosis. As a Response Sergeant I went in every day, dealt with whatever incidents were thrown our way and looked after my team to the very best of my ability. Then I went home and spent rest days totally burnt out, anxious, trying to recover enough to go back for the next set of shifts and do it all again. I got my diagnosis so that I could take it to the Force and ask for help as I recognised that I could not go on like that.

At first it was slow going, but my immediate line managers were excellent and gave me a lot of support. There wasn’t a lot I could do on Response in terms of reasonable adjustments, but in my next role as a Community Sergeant I was able to put things into place that helped me greatly, like a flexible working pattern to give me a ‘recovery day’ and minimising my use of the telephone (many autistic people hate the phone).

Ideal career

Contrary to first impressions, policing can be an ideal career for an autistic person. We love rules and routine. I wear the same thing every day and work a shift pattern that doesn’t change.

PS Claire Masterton, Vice-Chair, NPAA

A diagnosis led me to understand myself, which is the first step to getting other people to understand and accept differences. I know, for example, that I prefer written instructions, and that I’ll follow a conversation much better if I can relax and focus on the words, not worry about how long I’ve been staring at someone to make eye contact. I can explain to people now that I might not look at them, and they know that I’m not rude, or bored. I know that if I have a few different meetings during the day that it’ll tire me out, and that I might speak a bit more slowly sometimes when I’m trying to put complex thoughts into words. I also know that I have many strengths alongside the things I find hard, just like everyone else does. I’ve been able to speak out and help others experiencing similar circumstances.

Contrary to first impressions, policing can be an ideal career for an autistic person. We love rules and routine. I wear the same thing every day and work a shift pattern that doesn’t change. Yes, you need ‘people skills’, but these can be learned, and if you think about it, in almost every interaction an officer has they’re in charge of the conversation. They decide which questions need asked, what information is required. They’re in control (we love to be in control!).

Autistic people are often good at taking in vast amounts of information, remembering details, cutting through the superfluous stuff and recognising what’s important. I’ve often amazed (frightened) my team by remembering instructions for an obscure task I read on an email years ago! Getting autistic people into the organisation and progressing them is where we fall down – but that’s a whole other blog…

Andy Marsh, Chief Constable of Avon & Somerset Constabulary, discusses the diagnosis of one of his officers and the impact it has had including the force’s approach to detainees with autism.

Last year around this time, when Sgt Adam O’Loughlin wrote about his own diagnosis and experience of autism in his blog, Adam decried those people who call it a disorder.

He said there’s nothing wrong with him but explained that autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person experiences the world around them and how they communicate and relate to others. He said: “I am quirky, I am different, but I am not less”.

Anyone booked into custody in Avon & Somerset who discloses they’re autistic, or who a custody officer suspects of being autistic, will be treated as vulnerable and an appropriate adult will be called to give them support.

Andy Marsh, Chief Constable of Avon & Somerset Constabulary

The blog prompted lots of comments: people welcomed Adam’s honesty and openness and shared their own experiences or those of family and friends. Since then, Adam’s become our first Force Lead for autism, and the National Police Autism Association’s Communications Officer.

It’s a shocking fact that 86% of autistic people are unemployed, but thankfully neurodiversity – encompassing conditions such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD – is recognised now in definitions of diversity and inclusion. Understanding and being more aware of the condition of autism is important: it helps us recognise and understand the condition in others, including detainees.

Risk assessment

In the last year, Avon & Somerset Constabulary has carried out a review of the risk assessment for detainees. In the past they haven’t been asked if they’ve ever been diagnosed with autism. Asking them about their mental health isn’t enough – many people with autism would say no to a learning disability and mental health question; autism is neither and so the condition goes undisclosed.

So once again we’re leading the way nationally. From now on anyone booked into custody in Avon & Somerset who discloses they’re autistic, or who a custody officer suspects of being autistic, will be treated as vulnerable and an appropriate adult will be called to give them support. Work is underway nationally to change the risk assessment to include this additional question, but we’re not waiting for that.” 

Permission to be me

The following blog was written by a serving police sergeant who shares his personal journey to diagnosis. He has asked to remain anonymous. 

My wife and I have always joked about my quirkiness. “I’m sure you have some form of autism”, she would say to me. Although it was said in jest, deep down we both knew it was a distinct possibility that I was on the autism spectrum.

After my daughter was born my wife and I started to see some distinct similarities between her social interactions and mine, so we continued to wonder.

The assessment process was uncomfortable, reliving uncomfortable parts of my childhood and teens in some detail; my difficulties forming friendships, spending large periods of time on my own and the challenges I encountered in suppressing my quirks to the people around me.

Serving police sergeant

In 2016 I was successful in getting an interview for promotion, but unfortunately missed out by a small margin. When I received my interview feedback I was convinced that I had been wronged in the marking of my answers. In fact, it turned out that I had interpreted some of the questions too literally and so didn’t answer what was actually being asked of me. It took me several months of deconstructing my interview in my mind to realise that I had fallen foul of a common trait of the autism spectrum – literal translation. Was this my fault or a process design flaw I wondered?

I began reading up on autism, searching the internet for more information to gain a greater understanding. The more I looked, the more boxes I began to tick. I came across an online questionnaire, often used as an early diagnostic tool. I was really pleased with my high score on the questionnaire, as I always enjoyed a good exam result, however the score was an indicator of a high likelihood of autism spectrum condition (ASC).

All evidence indicated a likely ASC diagnosis, but I questioned what good it would be in my thirties to have such a diagnosis? After all, ASC cannot be treated, it is merely a ‘different’ or ‘non-typical’ way of interacting with and processing the world around you; something I have lived with all of my life, though few people have ever known.

A diagnosis now at this stage in life would not change anything.

However, I read a few articles explaining diagnosis in adulthood can be a good thing, helping to provide self-acceptance for who you are and for those around you to begin to understand your quirks. It could also help to seek reasonable adjustments at work.

I went to my GP, who had to seek funding for an adult assessment, but within around 10 weeks I had my diagnosis. It was confirmed that I was autistic, following several questionnaires and a full day assessment with two psychologists.

It isn’t easy being, thinking and doing things in ways that are unfamiliar to most other people, but with acceptance also comes the realisation that my differences are the root of my strengths.

Serving police sergeant

The assessment process was uncomfortable, reliving uncomfortable parts of my childhood and teens in some detail; my difficulties forming friendships, spending large periods of time on my own and the challenges I encountered in suppressing my quirks to the people around me.

Now, I am not so much coming to terms with my diagnosis, but more like coming to terms with being ‘me’. I am now making less excuses for the way I am, embracing my quirks and being true to who I really am – rather than what I think everyone else expects me to be.

It isn’t easy being, thinking and doing things in ways that are unfamiliar to most other people, but with acceptance also comes the realisation that my differences are the root of my strengths.

Diagnosis hasn’t ‘fixed’ me, but it has released me to finally be myself.

These blogs have been published with kind permission from the National Police Autism Association and can be found here

The National Police Autism Association provides personal support to police officers, staff and volunteers through a network of champions (NPAA Coordinators) in UK police forces. 


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