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Think different – think big: neurodiversity in policing

Following only the second ever Neurodiversity in Policing Conference, Police Oracle hears what positives - including operational benefits - a neurodivergent workforce could bring.

ACO Alexis Poole

ACO Alexis Poole

Date - 17th January 2022
By - Chloe Livadeas
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Alexis Poole is Assistant Chief Officer at Devon and Cornwall Police and National Police Chiefs’ Council neurodiversity lead, which only became a portfolio in January 2020.

Before, she said in terms of leadership neurodiversity was “kind of wrapped across the service within some of the equality, diversity and disability area”.

Today, policing is undoubtedly more attuned to the challenges.

Following the first national conference in 2020, the National Police Autism Association, College of Policing, NPCC, Devon and Cornwall came together for second time in November 2021 to run a virtual conference for two weeks, with a mix of 26 different sections open to anybody in policing to dip in and out of.

This years’ theme was ‘Think Different – Think Big’. Guest speakers include author and journalist Matthew Syed, entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan and Royal Navy Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Nick Hine.

ACO Poole said they wanted to create a capacity to talk not just about issues within the disability portfolio, such as reasonable work adjustments, but also around strengths, values and “different thinking”.

John Nelson is chair of the NPAA.  He is also a sergeant with the British Transport Police.

He has Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism – having been diagnosed with the condition after working eight years on the frontline he found there was no support for people like him in the police. So in 2015 he launched the NPAA, which today has almost 2,000 members from across the whole of the UK police service.

The main four neurodivergent conditions are autism (of which Asperger syndrome is a type of), dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

All of these could need workplace adjustments and extra support from an organisation.

“And they also carry certain advantages, which is the main concept we want to get across,” said ACO Poole. “It's not all about the negative, it's very much about tapping into the positives.”

She went on to say: “Our ambition is to really make sure that we understand the enormous value that exists amongst us that quite often we're not getting the benefit from.”

One speaker who made an impact was Vice Admiral Nick Hine, Royal Navy Second Sea Lord. He was diagnosed with autism 10 years ago, and came out as having the condition in an interview with The Times in March 2021.

In the interview, Vice Admiral Hine talks about his reputation for being “blunt, challenging and difficult” -  traits he says helped him to forge a career in the Navy.

He also believes it is essential for the UK’s military to recruit those who could think differently in order to remain an effective fighting force in years to come.

Sgt Nelson said: “I think it is quite incredible for someone that senior within the armed forces has decided to go public with it.”

These days similar role models exist in the police service, after a commander in the Metropolitan Police came out as having Asperger syndrome in April last year. In a blog on the force’s intranet that was republished on the NPAA website, Simon Dobinson explains how his razor sharp ability to focus is a blessing, but also says how the emotional intelligence needed for a leadership position in the police required a little extra dedication.

“Previously I have actively sought out roles that suited the way I thought and felt, managing risks, using decision-making frameworks, clear rules, governance and structure,” Commander Dobinson wrote. “But to make the difference I wanted, I had to work hard to become more comfortable with navigating the grey and intangible space where things can be less clear-cut and far more ambiguous.”

“That for me was a real mind blowing moment,” said Sgt Nelson. “Obviously, I knew about it already. But to see someone so senior talk so frankly about their own autism. And the fact that rather than holding him back it has actually helped him in his career.

“That, to me, is quite remarkable. And I'm thinking, well, how can we make the police service an environment in which someone like that can thrive?”

Sgt Nelson says in his job he needed simple adjustments such as a quiet place to work and assistance with going through the promotion process. He says policing has come a long way in terms of internal support offered since the NPAA launched. “At the time, back in 2015, autistic police officers were absolutely unheard of,” he said. “Everyone I spoke to had never heard of it before and people tended to form their own opinions of it. And there was a lot of negativity there.

“I came across an assumption that I was somehow less able than my colleagues, that I wasn’t as capable or not as deserving. And it's taken a while to get over that. And I think we've made a great deal of progress since then, but back at the time there was just a massive lack of knowledge and understanding around it.”

This lack of understanding can extend to the treatment of the community. In 2020 Andy Buchan, a retired autistic police officer, published a book titled Autism in the Police: Practical Advice for Officers and Other First Responders. In it he details how to recognise if someone might be autistic, saving officers from misinterpreting behaviours - which could unnecessarily escalate a situation, and what small adjustments can be made to minimise any distress caused by the interaction.

Forces today are more switched on to their outward response in this arena. Nottinghamshire Police are in the process of building the country’s first autism friendly custody suite, an environment that can be incredibly stressful for someone with the condition. Northumbria Police offer their new recruits specialist training, put together with input from an autistic member of public.

“We're trying to increase our understanding across the board,” said ACO Poole. “So the conference focused largely on us internally as a service. We as a group are increasingly looking at some of the service delivery issues and the conference moved into that.”

She went on to say: “There's been some work around the prevalence of neurodivergence in the criminal justice system and about some of the adjustments that need to be made there. But at its heart, if we as a service better understand neurodiversity and neurodivergence, we will be far better able to deliver a policing service that's responsive to the needs of our communities.

“The more our internal colleagues are able to thrive and the more their colleagues understand them and support them, the more likely we are to be able to deliver good service to those people we meet in a policing context. So the two are very helpfully mutually beneficial.”

Sgt Nelson agrees, and said: “If we're going to understand autism and other neurodivergent conditions internally and support them better, then we're going to support the community better as well. And vice versa.

“They are really are two sides of the same coin.”

ACO Poole said it was important the service employed, retained and encouraged people with neurodivergent conditions so people look at policing and see it as something that looks like their community.

“But it's also important that policing is exposed to people who think differently, who bring different ideas, different solutions, who just look at the world in a different way, because we face challenges that the old ways are not going to serve us through them,” she said.

“So we really need to be able to create space to listen to people who think differently to us, and for people to act upon it.

“We talked in the sessions about some of the leadership responsibilities to make sure that people have a voice. So we mustn't say that it's all somebody's responsibility to speak up and be heard, actually, there's a really big leadership responsibility to be reading and listening and asking, and to be making sure that people are heard.”

Recordings of all the conferences sessions are available on the College of Policing Diversity and Inclusion Network on Knowledge hub.

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Ordered by:
Forensic Investigator - Thu, 20 January 2022

Understanding neurodiversity and all the advantages it can bring, is crucial, not just for policing and the CJS, but also for society in general. Huge organisations have successfully tapped into the power of neurodiversity; JP Morgan, Apple, Microsoft, Israeli Defence Force, Australian Defence Force, GCHQ to name but a few. The point is that having an understanding and awareness of neurodiversity can really give an organisation distinct advantages in many respects. I work in this field and I am always surprised at just how well neurodiverse people thrive, with often minor reasonable adjustments, in a demanding work environment such as the police.
Softly Softly, I suggest you read Andy Buchan's book, Matthew Syed's book 'Rebel Ideas' and 'The Power of Neurodiversity' by Thomas Armstrong, before making any judgments.