School of Law

Research Student: Mia Pickard

How does the custody setting accommodate for the needs of people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)? A study of custody officer and civilian custody staff awareness of ASD.

In theory, substantial safeguards exist to address the needs of someone in custody with ASD.

They are protected by the provisions set out in PACE Code C 2012 as vulnerable adults, protected by the provisions of the Mental Health Act 1983 under the definition of mental disorder, and their needs must be considered under section 149(7) of the Equality Act 2010.

In addition, the consideration of ASD generally within the criminal justice system seems to be increasing in prevalence. This is due partly to a number of recent publications, such as ‘Think Autism Fulfilling and Rewarding Lives, the strategy for adults with autism in England: an update’ (Department of Health, 2014).

Such publications help to provide a clearer spotlight on learning disabilities and ASD, within the context of the CJS but they do not specifically focus on ASD within the custody setting. Furthermore, the legislation and codes of practice provide protection but this protection is entirely dependent upon custody staff firstly recognising the possibility of ASD in a person.

Identifying ASD is difficult, even for trained medical persons. It is therefore concerning that non-medical persons such as custody officers are expected to be able to identify ASD.

This proposed area of study will look at whether custody officers, as the gatekeepers to the rest of the CJS and referral/multi-agency working, and custody staff, have sufficient awareness of ASD to be able to identify someone as vulnerable due to ASD. If this is not the case, it suggests that the vulnerable person safeguards within custody are routinely not being triggered by custody officers and this has larger implication for the criminal justice system in terms of fairness, legal responsibility and perhaps even the legality of some prosecutions.


I graduated from Newcastle University in 2000 with a degree in Combined Studies of the Arts (Modern History, Ancient History, Medieval Studies, English Literature and French). I then completed a PGCE in secondary education at the University of Leeds and was an English teacher for four years.

I have worked as a training designer at the College of Policing for ten years creating national training products for police forces. While working, I studied part time for a Master’s Degree from the University of Leeds in Criminal Justice Studies. I successfully completed this in 2008.

What motivated me to undertake PhD study?

The thought of possibly undertaking PhD study had been stimulated by the time I spent at Leeds University while studying for my Master’s degree. After graduating, I was left with a very positive impression of the School of Law and I had already decided that I wanted to return.

What makes me passionate about my subject?

Identifying ASD is difficult, even for trained medical persons. Therefore, it is of potential concern that non-medical persons such as custody officers are expected to be able to identify whether someone may have ASD in order to then trigger the vulnerable person safeguards within custody.

In addition, police are having to do increasingly more but with less resources. There is increased pressure on both time and funds for training.

Despite these pressures, positive work is being done within national custody training and within individual forces to promote awareness of ASD. I want to see what works, as well as failures. I want to be able to identify and highlight good practice so that this can inform vulnerability and custody training as well as guidance documents for the police.

An evidence-based approach to what works and the sharing of good practice is important because when it does not work the consequences can be as severe as a death within custody, or a Taser being used, or an unnecessary strain on the NHS. Awareness of ASD can potentially avoid these situations but how achievable, or fair, is it to expect custody staff to identify ASD?

What are my plans once I have completed my PhD?

Through continued research, I would like to help to inform and shape policy and guidance for police forces.

I would hope that any future research would help identify what works within policing which would help promote an evidence-based approach within policing.

On completion of my PhD, I would also like to become involved with teaching within a university setting. If possible, I would like to become involved with any voluntary teaching opportunities presented within the School of Law at Leeds while I am studying for my PhD.

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