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Unlocking the Knowledge and Experience of Autism in the Prison: A Staff and Inmate Perspective

Clare AllelyHer Majesty’s Young Offenders Institute (HMYOI) Feltham is the first prison or young offender institution in the country to be awarded Autism Accreditation. Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institute (HMYOI) Feltham has been working with The National Autistic Society (NAS) for over two years to improve the way they support offenders with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who are in custody. The aim of Accreditation is to improve autism practice across all areas of prison life, including: admission, prison staff training, behaviour management and the physical environment, with the long term aim of tackling issues often faced by prisoners with ASD and ultimately reducing the risk of recidivism in this group.

Clare Hughes, Criminal Justice Manager for Autism Accreditation, The National Autistic Society, said: “We’re delighted to award Feltham with Autism Accreditation and that the Minister could be here to mark this important moment”.

Clare Hughes goes on to highlight a number of important issues: “Autistic people can end up in the prison system, just like anyone else. But their experience is often more traumatic because their additional needs aren’t recognised and met. This pilot has made clear that improved understanding of autism among prison staff, simple adjustments and better support can address many of these issues and improve prison life for prisoners and staff alike” (http://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/media-centre/news/2016-02-25-first-autism-accredited-prison.aspx).

However, despite prison interest and some prisons being involved with pilot work within the UK, Feltham remains the only prison in the UK to have Autism Accreditation. Given that there are a number of studies suggesting that the prevalence of ASD is higher in the prison population when compared to the general population (e.g., Scragg & Shah, 1994), it highlights the urgent need for more prisons to gain Autism Accreditation and for further research to gain more of an understanding the specific needs of inmates with ASD and prison staffs knowledge of the disorder.

Recognising the importance of research in this field, lecturers at the University of Salford, Dr Clare Allely and Dr Toni Wood, have combined their expertise in a unique project which will involve questionnaires and semi-structured interviews of a broad section of prison staff as well as inmates with ASD with the aim of increasing our understanding of what areas could be improved on and, crucially, to assist in the development of a toolkit for prison staff in order to try and increase the identification, recognition and understanding of ASD within the prison environment.

Our project addresses a real gap in the research. To date, the research looking at these issues is sparse. In fact, to date, there has only been one study which has explored prison staffs’ knowledge and understanding of ASD (McAdam, 2009). McAdam (2009) identified five prisoners with a diagnosis of an ASD (four with a diagnosis of AS and one with autism) over six months in one of the largest prisons in England. Two of the five seemed to need little support but the other three struggled significantly with the prison environment. Overall, McAdam (2009) emphasised that in prison, many individuals with ASD do not receive the appropriate care that they need. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

The importance of projects such as the one by Dr Toni Wood and Dr Clare Allely cannot be stressed enough when you read the literature which suggests that individuals with ASD are more vulnerable to bullying and social isolation within the prison environment (Allely, 2015a). In a review of the literature published last year, Allely (2015b) identified only four studies which investigated the experience of individuals with ASD in the prison. While important and increasing the awareness of this area, all four studies involved case studies and small samples.

The case reports reviewed by Allely (2015b) clearly highlighted that inmates with ASDs can experience numerous difficulties within the prison environment such as poor relationships with prison staff and other inmates. Specifically it is important to bear in mind that the environment is experienced as particularly stressful, distressing and intense for many individuals with ASD compared to their neuro-typical fellow inmates. These findings are also supported in another review which was published around the same time (Robertson & McGillivray, 2015).

However, as highlighted by Dr Clare Allely and Dr Toni Wood, there is a significant lack of empirical research investigating the experiences of individuals with ASD in the prison environment and prison staffs’ knowledge and understanding of the disorder. Our aim is that the findings from this project, and the development of the toolkit, will help inform appropriate and effective provisions, interventions and support for individuals with ASD in prison. Additionally, to increase awareness and identification of individuals with ASD in the prison environment (McCarthy, Chaplin, Underwood, Forrester, Hayward et al., 2015a; Underwood, McCarthy, Chaplin, Forrester, Mills, & Murphy, 2016). Ultimately, we hope to increase recognition of this area with the hope that more prisons in the UK will seek Autism Accreditation.

The urgency of further research is further emphasised by a number of studies which have shown that the severity of ASD traits is a risk factor for suicidality and common mental health issues in prison inmates (McCarthy, Underwood, Hayward, Chaplin, Forrester, Mills, & Murphy, 2015b).

The researchers on this project state that “It is hoped that this project is just the beginning of much more research in this relatively neglected area that we will be working on in years to come”. 

References

Allely, C. S. (2015a). Autism spectrum disorders in the criminal justice system: police interviewing, the courtroom and the prison environment. Recent Advances in Autism, 1-13.

Allely, C. S. (2015b). Experiences of prison inmates with autism spectrum disorders and the knowledge and understanding of the spectrum amongst prison staff: a review. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities and Offending Behaviour, 6(2), 55-67.

Lewis, A., Pritchett, R., Hughes, C., & Turner, K. (2015). Development and implementation of autism standards for prisons. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities and Offending Behaviour, 6(2), 68-80.

McAdam, P. (2009). Knowledge and understanding of the autism spectrum amongst prison staff. Good Autism Practice (GAP), 10(1), 19-25.

McCarthy, J., Chaplin, E., Underwood, L., Forrester, A., Hayward, H., Sabet, J., … & Murphy, D. (2015a). Screening and diagnostic assessment of neurodevelopmental disorders in a male prison. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities and Offending Behaviour, 6(2), 102-111.

McCarthy, J., Underwood, L. I. S. A., Hayward, H., Chaplin, E., Forrester, A., Mills, R., & Murphy, D. (2015b). Autism Spectrum Disorder and Mental Health Problems Among Prisoners. European Psychiatry, 30, 864.

Robertson, C. E., & McGillivray, J. A. (2015). Autism behind bars: a review of the research literature and discussion of key issues. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 26(6), 719-736.

Scragg, P., & Shah, A. (1994). Prevalence of Asperger’s syndrome in a secure hospital. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 165(5), 679-682.

Underwood, L., McCarthy, J., Chaplin, E., Forrester, A., Mills, R., & Murphy, D. (2016). Autism spectrum disorder traits among prisoners. Advances in Autism, 2(3).

Clare Allely Lecturer in Psychology

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