Chloe Hocking, a doctoral student at the University of Nottingham, visited the Centre this week to speak about her research on the experiences of autistic individuals in police custody, with her presentation focusing on a learning exercise conducted in a custody suite in Nottingham.

The study consisted of an exercise where two participants with autism were walked through the custody process, from booking-in to cell detention, to highlight problematic areas in the system. This was set up as a control environment with support provided by  the researchers, yet the participants still faced difficulties, thus highlighting the need to improve an autistic detainee’s experience in police custody. This is significant as without appropriate support for autistic individuals there is a risk of mistreatment and miscarriages of justice taking place. Furthermore, Chloe noted the lack of literature from the point of view of autistic individuals themselves, highlighting that the law cannot fully support individuals without taking their voices into account. This seems to be the driving force behind her research, with the practical implications for those with autism encountering police custody being highly significant.

There were four themes covered in the presentation; effect on wellbeing, sensory sensitivities, language and understanding and provision of information. Chloe thoroughly outlined each of these, highlighting particularly the anxiety experienced by autistic individuals facing the often-unknown custody environment. A key issue with the custody process is the lack of specific questions aimed at assessing detainees and identifying their needs, which is particularly concerning with regards to safeguarding and identifying needs. This was shown in the example of one of the participants being asked where she lived. She repeatedly responded by naming the city where her home was, as she was interpreting the question literally (a common characteristic of those on the autistic spectrum). If the custody sergeant had specifically asked for her full address, this confusion could have been avoided. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to identifying health concerns or gaining critical information on medication, which was highlighted by one of the participants having diabetes. It is also important to note that the participants were picked based on their level of capability to contribute to the research, which is ethically and practically essential, especially when a certain level of discomfort or distress could be caused by the learning exercise. However, it does draw our attention to the experience of autistic detainees who cannot communicate in the same way and how their experiences could arguably be more acute, yet their experiences remain undocumented.

An essential component of the whole study is the fact that those who fall on the autistic spectrum are individuals; each with a very different set of needs that may in fact conflict with other autistic detainees. Although this can pose challenges, there are certain practical changes, such as having a dimmer switch on the intense artificial lighting, which could transform the experience of custody for autistic detainees with sensory sensitivities. Police custody is an intimidating environment, which can disproportionately impact on those with additional needs, yet Chloe outlines changes that can improve this experience. Other recommendations include having better trained Appropriate Adults, as there are disparities over training and experience of these individuals. They play a key role particularly in relation to acting as an independent party, who is there to explain the full process to the detainee and provide support throughout. Chloe suggests a better matching of Appropriate Adults to individuals, and having more Appropriate Adults with training on autism would help bridge this gap. Furthermore, Chloe found through the interview component of her research, the disparity in which stage an Appropriate Adult is brought in for a defendant across police custodies, for example, some are only brought in at the interview stage. This is highly problematic, with closer following of PACE guidelines and increased accountability for failing to do so needed.

Chloe ended her presentation with the acknowledgement that not all changes will be practical, yet they can benefit all detainees. This lead onto an interesting discussion from our respondents and from the audience over the debate between punishment vs. welfare that exists in criminal justice. Chloe touched on the interesting point which I feel is particularly important here, on whether police custody in fact needs to be a punitive environment when the law operates under the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ Therefore, welfare could be the central tenet underpinning holding individuals in police custody, which not only benefits those with autism but all detainees.