Autism Awareness Week guest blog: supporting people with autism in the criminal justice system

Helen Storey, CEO of Triple A, tells us about autism, the criminal justice system and how she’s working with Catch22 to make a difference.

02 April 2018

After my grandson was diagnosed, I packed myself off to the University of Cumbria to learn about autism.  At the time, I was the Deputy CEO of a reducing offending charity, and had twelve years’ experience of working with people with disabilities.   But in one of my lectures a question I had never thought of came crashing into my head – “Hang on- are individuals on the autism spectrum getting in to trouble because of their autism …?”  The answer I found, was a resounding yes.

I continued to dig deeper and, as part of my uni course, I arranged a conference on this topic. I invited everyone I could think of: probation, prison, police, courts, CPS, health, education – and those with autism.  By January 2016, I had left my job and Triple A was born. 

So why is it important that we support people living with autism within the criminal justice system?

Triple A Project was initially established by way of a response to a ‘360 degree’ vulnerability within the autism community. We learnt that individuals are susceptible to becoming perpetrators of criminal behaviour as well as becoming victims through naivety, made worse by a lack of understanding and misinterpretation.    

Generally speaking, autistic individuals have difficulties with social communication and interactions. This can make it very hard for them to navigate the social world, let alone the criminal justice system. People with autism might experience some or all of the following:

  • Difficulty interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice.
  • Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say.  
  • They may find it difficult to use or understand facial expressions, tone of voice, jokes and sarcasm.  
  • Autistic people often have difficulty ‘reading’ other people. This includes recognising or understanding others’ feelings and intentions – and expressing their own emotions.

We must ensure we support individuals in the right way with these communication and sensory differences.   Failure to do so will exacerbate any situation causing individuals great distress, which can often have devastating consequences.   

However, autism is diverse within itself; so as a team we continue to learn from each other. We’ve involved autistic individuals in Triple A from the start, experts by experience will always be at the heart of all that we do – ‘nothing about us without us’ principle.  

Triple A and Catch22

Our link with Catch22 came about through Peter Jones who found Triple A on Twitter.  Peter and I met up in Manchester and had a highly-charged meeting of minds.  We both recognised the work that needs to be done, the enormity of the issues and became set on developing a pilot for prisons to assist both the autistic community and the front line staff who support them.

Catch22 has embraced Triple A’s training in order to raise awareness and understanding of autism amongst their colleagues.  We held a training day held in Doncaster on Monday 19th March, and it was a huge success. Catch22 colleagues were keen to learn and left the day armed with ideas and plans to take back to their teams, and the other agencies they work with.  The way Catch22 has embraced autism demonstrates much needed ‘social justice in action’ for the autistic community.  

For me, the main thing about Catch22 as an organisation, is the caring ‘big brother’ attitude in listening and being prepared to enable such a tiny fish as Triple A. Catch22 has listened and introduced Triple A to people who may help to bring the Prison Pathway Plan into being. We’re excited to keep working together and make a real difference to the criminal justice system, and to the lives of people with autism.

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