top of page

Disability Community Reference, Engagement and Listening (REaL) Event 25 April 2024


On April 25, 2024, the Strategic Community Engagement Team (SCET) of the Police Service organised a Reference, Engagement and Listening (REaL) Event at Newforge in Belfast. Stakeholder organisations from the disability community in Northern Ireland were involved.

I was there on behalf of the National Counselling and Psychotherapy Society, working towards finding ways for the PSNI to better support autistic people. You can read the PSNI’s summary here

The format for the day included informal focus group discussions centred around specific topics. Outlining each topic, this report aims to add background information and highlight potential support for autistic individuals.

Focus Group Questions

Procedural Fairness

It's vital that all communities can access the Police Service. What are the barriers experienced by disabled members of the community in navigating police services? How could we resolve these?

The difficulties experienced by autistic individuals often result from a lack of societal inclusion and equity (Dinishak, 2016). The focus group discussions highlighted a fear of misunderstanding as a reason for not wanting to contact the police. Literal interpretation of speech is common among autistic individuals (Wiklund, 2016). The lack of clarity can make it hard to grasp others’ intentions, making autistic individuals susceptible to manipulation and coercion (Williams et al., 2018).

As many as 80% of autistic people have experienced being taken advantage of as victims of ‘mate crime’ by individuals they considered friends, which is saddening (Wirral Autistic Society, 2015). Improving reporting accessibility may encourage autistic individuals to report more crimes, but it’s essential to prioritise psychoeducation on fostering healthy friendships.

Sexual violence has affected a notable 60% of autistic adults in the community (Gibbs et al., 2023). Perpetrators may target autistic individuals because of communication differences, such as struggles in interpreting nonverbal cues. Context blindness, for autistic individuals, can manifest as a challenge in recognising the context of a situation (Griffioen, 2021). Nonverbal language and social context play a critical role in recognising risky situations, placing autistic individuals at an increased risk of abuse.

The potential challenges faced by autistic individuals in identifying and reporting sexual violence emphasise the need for focused campaigns and increased awareness. Autistic individuals may experience longer processing times, hindering their access to information about reporting. Because of the insufficient support and resources for autistic individuals (Gibbs et al., 2023), many crimes often go unreported.

Accessing police services emerged as a concern because of a lack of understanding, as discussed in the focus groups. People were expected to search for information without assistance. The group recommendations emphasised the necessity of specific campaigns to promote awareness of the online reporting portal and neighbourhood policing contact page. The online reporting system may be especially accessible for autistic individuals, making it important.

Hate Crime

Disability hate crime remains under-reported in Northern Ireland. What are the challenges to reporting this type of crime and how could the PSNI help address these and improving confidence within the community?

Different definitions of hate crime exist across the UK, with no legal definition in Northern Ireland, but the police still record it. If we consider hate crimes or incidents as arising from prejudice and hostility towards disability, then we must consider the treatment of autistic individuals. I was keen to raise age as a barrier to reporting hate crime for autistic young people.

Autistic students often face isolation, teasing, and bullying. Research suggests that 80% of teenagers are well-informed about autism (Dillenburger et al., 2017), yet one out of six teenagers claim to have witnessed bullying of an autistic peer. Bullying towards autistic young people cannot be justified by claiming ignorance or lack of awareness.

Above, I have discussed mate crime under procedural fairness. It’s clear that this can be viewed as a subset of a hate crime (Thomas and Sgm, 2011; Forster and Pearson, 2019). I highlighted the need for better education on hate crimes, particularly in schools, during the focus group discussions. Age can be a significant obstacle for reporting hate crimes, as schools often handle bullying within their own systems. Schools have the responsibility to identify situations where bullying should be treated as a hate crime and report them accordingly.

Attraction and Recruitment

The PSNI wants to be representative of the community that it serves and is currently under-represented by people with disabilities. How could we develop our workforce to ensure that it is more representative of the communities that we serve? Are there any ways in which in the Service could better engage with the community in order to promote the career options which exist within policing?

The focus groups felt that policing did not represent or include them. This created a barrier to applying for roles within the PSNI. A guide for police officers and staff is accessible via NAS (National Autistic Society, 2020). Its initial publication was in 2005 and it has regularly been updated. However, a guide is only useful if it has been actively engaged with.

In 2022, in published freedom of information request PSNI disclosed the absence of mandatory neurodiversity training. They highlighted the range of online learning options available for student officers, specifically those related to neurological differences. Unfortunately, there is no information available on the rate of participation or completion of these trainings. There was no established protocol for officers interacting with individuals who have a neurological difference.

There have been examples of failing to provide reasonable accommodations for applicants hoping to join the PSNI (BBC News, 2021). Individuals do not have to disclose a hidden disability to be offered reasonable adjustments. The onus is on the organisation to ask clarifying questions. In addition, the organisation needs to clearly communicate and share systems with all staff, highlighting the need for a neurodiversity protocol.

The PSNI Annual Progress Report has a lot of misinformation, creating the impression that ‘awareness’ is a box ticking exercise. The PSNI Neurodiversity Celebration week sought to improve awareness and understanding within the PSNI of the ‘seven main conditions falling under the neurodiversity umbrella’.

Simplified, neurodiversity encompasses every individual on Earth. Cognitive functioning within human beings is limitless. The intention is to encourage the normalisation of differences, rather than segregating humans based on a list of conditions. The report disregarded the language preferences of autistic individuals by using the term ‘with autism’. I do not have autism. I am not with autism. My identity stems from being autistic. When discussing autistic people, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends using identity first language (autistic person).

The report highlights the positive connections made with local autistic support groups (All about us-ASD Teens). However, there was a lack of collaboration with autistic adults or organisations led by autistic individuals, rather than those organised on behalf of autistic individuals. The autistic community is eager to move beyond medical language, including abbreviations like ‘ASD’. If organisations want to promote differences in a more positive way, they need to avoid using terminology that describes the autistic way of being as ‘disordered’ (Autism spectrum disorder, ASD). This terminology carries both negative and stigmatising implications.

The general agreement among the focus groups was that the PSNI should implement a proactive and targeted strategy to strengthen representation. One approach could implement training led by autistic individuals for officers and staff in public-facing positions. A step in the right direction mentioned in the report is the PSNI’s involvement with the National Police Autism Association (NPAA). However, I suggest collaborating with an autistic researcher/advocate to ensure that the content is up-to-date and promotes neurodiversity in a neuro-affirming way.

Local Accountability and Neighbourhood Policing

Can you tell us whether PSNI engagement at a local District level provides opportunities for the disability sector to voice their views and concerns? How could this be enhanced?

Feedback from autistic adults in the UK revealed that their interactions with the police were overwhelmingly unsatisfactory (Crane et al., 2016). According to the study, 42% of officers felt content with their ability to work with autistic individuals, suggesting a perceived competence. The study revealed that only 37% of the officers had received training on autism, but they believed that the training should be more tailored for policing duties.

Enabling autistic adults to raise their distinct concerns involves prioritising the perspectives of individuals with lived experience. This involves developing and providing autism-related training, as no one is better suited to describe the autistic experience than autistic individuals themselves.

Something that really bothers me is the Autism Reality Experience, which aims to provide a firsthand understanding of autism. NEWSFLASH, it does not accurately simulate the experience of being autistic for delegates. Brace yourself for this shocking revelation: we are not clones (insert sarcasm here).

The autism reality experience does not consider the diversity of sensory processing within the autistic community. Autistic individuals vary in their sensory profiles, with some being sensitive, some seeking sensory input, and others lacking overt awareness of sensory stimuli.

The key takeaway is that sensory processing is not constant; it fluctuates depending on multiple factors. Various factors, such as the environment, individual comfort, and social requirements, can affect the processing of sensory input for autistic individuals.

The groups’ recommendations highlighted the importance of providing autism-related training to PSNI Officers and Staff to improve engagement. The groups mentioned a study conducted by Maxwell and Kramer (2024) that aims to contribute to the existing literature on the intricate issues surrounding interactions between police and autistic individuals.

In partnership with the PSNI, the study focuses on training, experiences, and confidence in policing in relation to autistic individuals. Less than 1/3 of the respondents in the study received autism training from the PSNI. Only 50% of those who received autism related training were content with the material.

In the focus group discussions, participants mentioned positive aspects of autism initiatives that were unrelated to PSNI initiatives, including the JAM (Just A Minute) card provided by the Now Group. The JAM card empowers individuals with hidden disabilities or communication barriers to silently convey their need for extra time and understanding. You can download the JAM card app here. The focus groups proposed extending this initiative in police stations by suggesting the placement of a JAM poster or sticker at enquiry office front desks.

Concerns were raised among the focus group participants because of the negative impact of the PSNI’s budgetary situation on Neighbourhood Policing. The acknowledgement of Neighbourhood Policing’s importance in building trust among the autistic community came from multiple groups. The first step is to trust the voices of the autistic community, involving them in the co-creation and potential delivery of autism training experiences.

This blog was written for and published for the National Counselling and Psychotherapy Society


BBC News (2021) Disability discrimination case settled with PSNI and jobs firm. Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics.

Crane, L., Maras, K.L., Hawken, T., Mulcahy, S. and Memon, A. (2016) Experiences of Autism Spectrum Disorder and Policing in England and Wales: Surveying Police and the Autism Community. Springer Science and Business Media LLC.

Dillenburger, K., Jordan, J.‐, McKerr, L., Lloyd, K. and Schubotz, D. (2017) Autism awareness in children and young people: surveys of two populations. Journal of intellectual disability research, 61 (8), 766-777.

Dinishak, J. (2016) The Deficit View and Its Critics. Disability Studies Quarterly, 36 (4),

Forster, S. and Pearson, A. (2019) “Bullies tend to be obvious”: autistic adults perceptions of friendship and the concept of ‘mate crime’. Informa UK Limited.

Gibbs, V., Hudson, J. and Pellicano, E. (2023) The Extent and Nature of Autistic People’s Violence Experiences During Adulthood: A Cross-sectional Study of Victimisation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 53 (9), 3509-3524.

Griffioen, T. (2021) Autism Spectrum Disorders. In: Lew-Starowicz, M., Giraldi, A. and Krüger, T.H.C., eds. Psychiatry and Sexual Medicine: A Comprehensive Guide for Clinical Practitioners. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 341-352.

Maxwell, N. and Kramer, A. (2024) Forgotten, outdated, and absent: PSNI officer’s training, experiences, and confidence with Autism. Informa UK Limited.

National Autistic Society (2020) Autism: a guide for police officers and staff. London: National Autistic Society. [Accessed 17 June 2024].

Thomas, P. and Sgm, F.C. (2011) ‘Mate crime’: ridicule, hostility and targeted attacks against disabled people. Informa UK Limited.

Wiklund, M. (2016) Interactional challenges in conversations with autistic preadolescents: The role of prosody and non-verbal communication in other-initiated repairs. Elsevier BV.

Williams, D.M., Nicholson, T., Grainger, C., Lind, S.E. and Carruthers, P. (2018) Can you spot a liar? Deception, mindreading, and the case of autism spectrum disorder. Wiley.

Wirral Autistic Society (2015) Mate Crime in Merseyside. Wirral Autistic Society.

0 views0 comments


bottom of page