Diversity, difference or disorder?

Neurodiversity in police-community partnerships

Researcher: Dr Alice Siberry
Principal supervisor: Dr Layla Skinns

Full Report


The aim of this research was to investigate whether the police use neurotypical practices in their interactions with neurodivergent citizens. This included examining whether the language used in police policy, procedure and practice is predominately neurotypical and assessing partnership relations between the police and organisations that support neurodivergent people. Incident report data from North and South Yorkshire Police was analysed in order to explore the nature of contact between the police and neurodivergent people. In addition, semi-structured interviews were conducted with police practitioners (N = 19) about their understanding of neurodiversity and their interactions with neurodivergent citizens, and with practitioners from organisations that support neurodivergent people (N = 8) about their partnership working with the police.


Key Findings

  • This research found a general lack of understanding of the meaning of neurodiversity and autism among police practitioners, except where participants had prior experience of autistic people either through their role in the police or in their personal lives.
  • Neurodiversity was not considered a policing priority, unless the autistic person was regarded as vulnerable.
  • All police practitioners in the research used neurotypical and medicalised language to talk about autism and neurodivergence (e.g. describing autism as a deficit, a handicap, an impairment and behaviour as ‘not normal’), often conflating autism and mental health. Some of these misunderstandings came from the way autism is considered under the mental health act 19
  • Partnership working in relation to supporting autistic and/or neurodivergent people was informal, ad-hoc and outcome-related, with relationships appearing to be unidirectional (with the police only reaching out to partners when they required information about an autistic person).
  • The police reported acting in ‘appropriate’ or ‘needs-based’ ways with autistic people. However, participants also reported identifying autism as being no reason to act in discretionary ways. This decision often depended on personal experiences of neurodivergence.