Police do not consider 48% of autistic people to be vulnerable adults

autistic people, vulnerable adults

The criminal justice system is failing autistic people, as clients are commonly not given support in trials because they are not deemed “vulnerable”

After surveying lawyers, researchers at the Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, found that a vast majority of their clients with autism were not provided with adequate support or adjustments, or even recognised as vulnerable.

The criminal justice system (CJS) is meant to provide reasonable adjustments – such as using visual aids to assist with communication and allowing extra time to process information – by the police to assist the detainee during trials. Only 25% of autistic people in this study were given ‘reasonable adjustments’.

The study reported that around 59% of prosecution barristers and 46% of judges or magistrates said or did something during the trial that made them concerned that they did not have an adequate understanding of autism.

Autistic clients were likely to experience ‘meltdowns’ as a result of their involvement in the CJS, so it’s important to disclose whether or not a defendant is autistic to run a fair trial. However, in just under half of the cases that included a trial by jury, at 47%, the jury was not informed that the defendant was autistic.

The study overall found that only half of autistic people, at 52%, were considered by the police to be vulnerable adults – despite that the law is meant to recognise all autistic people as vulnerable.

The law recognises all autistic people as vulnerable

With minimal research examining how autistic defendants are treated within the CJS, an Equality and Human Rights Commission report in June 2020 warned that the CJS is potentially failing both those with learning disabilities and autistic people.

Conducting a survey of 93 defence lawyers, researchers questioned them about autistic people they have represented in the last five years to find out about their defendants’ experiences of navigating the CJS.

They found inn their study that the researchers found the CJS is failing autistic people, as only half of autistic people, 52%, were considered by the police to be vulnerable adults.

The study found that over a third, 35%, of autistic defendants were not given an ‘appropriate adult’ during police investigations – despite their diagnosis being known to police, and against all autistic people being entitled under the law to have an appropriate adult present when being interviewed by the police.

An additional 18% were not even supplied an ‘appropriate adult’ to be present, as their diagnosis was not known, or asked about, in the police – appropriate adults are meant to safeguard the interests and rights of vulnerable defendants by ensuring that they are treated in a just manner and can participate effectively during an investigation.

With 38% not given any even though lawyers stated that this would have been beneficial. This is despite all autistic people being entitled to reasonable adjustments under the law.

“Autistic adults are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems, such as stress and heightened anxiety.”

A further 33% did not receive any adjustments because their autism diagnosis was unknown at the time – and of the autistic people whose case went to trial, more than one in five, 22%, were not given any reasonable adjustments even though their lawyers stated that this would have been helpful.

However, a positive finding was that, in cases where their client was found to have committed a crime, 60% of judges saw the defendant’s autism as a mitigating factor, and in these cases the majority of autistic people were given a suspended or reduced sentence.

Those working within the CJS may be unaware that an individual is autistic, or of the implications of an autism diagnosis. They found that many autistic people do not disclose their diagnosis at the point of police contact or are themselves unaware they are autistic.

Even autistic defendants who disclose their diagnosis fail to receive reasonable adjustments

Dr Sarah Griffiths. another member of the research team, said: “Autistic adults are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems, such as stress and heightened anxiety, with many autistic people experiencing meltdown and shutdown as a result. This is likely to have shaped their interactions with the criminal justice system and their ability to cope with the stress of being subject to criminal proceedings.”

Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge and a member of the research team, added: “There’s an urgent need across the criminal justice system for increased awareness about autism.

“The police, lawyers, judges and jurors should be given mandatory training to be aware of how autism affects an individual’s behaviour, so that autistic defendants are treated fairly within the criminal justice system.”

Dr Carrie Allison, a member of the research team, said: “It’s vital that jurors are provided with information about a defendant’s autism and its implications, otherwise they are likely to misinterpret atypical behaviour exhibited by the defendant in court. Similarly, judges may fail to take into consideration mitigating factors that might otherwise influence sentencing.”

Dr Rachel Slavny-Cross, who led the study, said: “Our research shows quite clearly that autistic adults are not receiving fair treatment within the criminal justice system. Without reasonable adjustments or support, this could place them at a significant disadvantage.”


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