Encounters with the law
If you witness a crime, or are the victim of a crime, you might be interviewed by the police and go to court. After you report a crime, a uniformed police officer may visit you at home, work or school to find out exactly what has happened. They will need to establish whether an offense has been committed and whether there is any action they need to take immediately to protect you or preserve evidence. So for example, if you have come home from work or school with an injury, they need to know if it was caused deliberately and who is responsible. Their first priority is to keep you safe.
The police may need to conduct a formal interview to record your account on DVD. This recording can then be played in court so that you don’t have to tell your story again. All police forces have specially trained officers that can conduct these interviews but their experience of autism will vary. They can work with you to plan your interview so that it is as stress-free as possible. The aim is to make you comfortable with the officer and the situation so that you can talk freely.
Most of these kinds of interviews are carried out at a police station or other police premises. Some interview rooms for vulnerable people are in hospitals. You can ask to see both the building and the room beforehand, and take photos of them. If you or your parent or carer feels that there is a problem with the planned location, such as the lighting, the noise or the fabric on the chairs, tell the police so that they can make amendments or can choose a different location.
You can help them to choose a suitable person to conduct the interview by telling them about any dislikes, such as perfume or a particular color of clothing. You can meet the interviewer beforehand. Most police officers will let you take their picture if you think it will help you to prepare.
A witness supporter
You can have a witness supporter, such as a teacher or social worker who already works with you, or an. Your parent or carer can also stay with you during the interview if you would find that helpful.
As long as good communication is established, autistic people can make excellent witnesses. All that is required for court proceedings is that the witness is ‘capable of understanding questions and giving understandable answers’. There are lots of practical things the police can do to make this possible. This is a professional who is accredited by a national body. They are often speech or language therapists and are experienced in working with people with autism or learning disabilities.
If someone is charged with an offense, you might need to go to court as a witness. The police or local Witness Service can take you to visit the court building and explain what might happen.
The police can ask the court to play the recording they made of your interview so that you don’t have to tell the story again. However, the lawyers and the judges in the court might need to ask you some more questions. The intermediary can be with you at court and help the judge and the lawyer to phrase their questions in a way that you will understand. This does not mean that you will have to be in the witness box in the court room. The police can ask the judge to let you answer their questions via a live video link. This is just one of a number of that the police can ask for:
- screens, to ensure that the you cannot see the defendant in court
- video-recorded evidence
- live TV links, allowing you to give evidence from outside the court
- video-recorded pre-trial cross-examination
- allowing the witness to use communication aids
- questioning through an intermediary
- clearing the public gallery of the court
- removal of wigs and gowns in court.
Parents and carers – how you can help
Parents and carers can help a person with autism to stay safe and to be treated appropriately by the police.
- Ensure that the person carries an identity card with their personal details, emergency contacts, an explanation of their condition, and that the person has the right to an ‘appropriate adult’.
- If possible, teach the person to inform any police officers that they come into contact with that they are on the autism spectrum.
- Keep all the written information you have about the person’s condition, for example their diagnosis and any specialist reports ever written about them. These may be useful if they ever come into contact with the police.
- Make clear rules about appropriate from a young age, particularly around obsessional interests. Unusual behavior that seems cute or endearing in a child may be interpreted as odd or threatening in an adult. You could use social stories to teach the person about appropriate social behavior and what to do in certain situations.
- Support the person to keep safe.
- Address the person’s preconceptions about the police. Do they think the police only talk to people who have done something wrong? If a police officer turns up, will they think that they are in trouble? Do they know they can talk to the police if they need help?
- If the person is a witness or victim, provide support when they initially talk to the police and share with the police information about the person’s likes, dislikes and needs.
- Work with the police to help to plan the interview, including visiting and taking photos of where the interview will take place.
- Help to prepare the person by explaining to them what will happen and accompanying them to visit the court or interview location and meet the interviewer, introducing them in a similar way to how you introduce other new people or situations.
- Consider whether you are the right person to be the person’s witness supporter. It can be hard for parents and carers to listen, without helping or interrupting, when their loved one is talking about something potentially traumatic. Perhaps a professional who is already involved in the witness’s life may be more appropriate. There is often scope for you to watch what is happening from a place outside the interview room. It is a matter to be discussed with you and the police should never exclude you from the interview if the witness is going to find the process more difficult and stressful because you are not present.
Some of the people in prisons and young offenders’ institutions are on the autism spectrum. Many do not have a diagnosis.
To get a formal diagnosis while in prison, contact the healthcare team and ask them to refer you to someone who has experience of diagnosing autism spectrum disorders. If you are refused a referral, then you may wish to go through the complaints process. If you are diagnosed whilst in prison, you may be classed as vulnerable. This may lead to you being moved to a different wing of the prison or to a more suitable prison.