Learning difficulties: autism and the railway

17 June 2015
This week on the blog is Temporary Sergeant Terry Page.
Have you worked with people with autism? What do you think about Terry's findings? Join in the discussion in the comments below.

TPS Terry Page

For many of us, taking a train is an easy routine. For others, the railways can be a scary environment. It can be seriously challenging for young and vulnerable people, not least at a station with a complex layout at rush hour.

It was just one moment helping a child with autism – who had been left confused at a busy London station – that changed the way I work with people with learning difficulties. It’s ended up making a huge difference with officers I work with, too. I’ve done volunteer work outside of policing in the past, working with children with learning difficulties, but handling situations on the beat was different. Having to balance human empathy, policing powers and customer and station staff expectations isn’t easy. Terry Page at Treetops School

So I had a new mission: get beneath the surface of autism, find out the misconceptions and make sure fellow officers can pick up on what I learned. I went to a special school in Essex called Treetops, where I observed first hand the importance of using the right verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Drawing from my experience and the expert knowledge of the staff at Treetops School, I made some big discoveries to pass on to colleagues.

People with autism can become panicked by changes to their schedule such as train delays or platform alterations. It can also be scary speaking to a uniformed officer; I’ve got to remind them I’m there to help. It’s often best to take a distressed person with autism away from the crowds on the station and ask rail staff to find a quieter spot.

Sometimes people with autism won’t maintain eye contact or seem abrupt in their answers, or they may rock from side to side or make other repetitive movements. They’re not being rude or evasive; they’re simply gathering their thoughts, or it may be part of their self-calming strategy. The flip side of this is that using too many hand signals ourselves can be distracting or confusing.

Finally, patience is crucial. You’ve got to allow time for someone with autism to answer any questions asked of them. Using their name regularly is vital, making sure you ask calm, clear and focused questions to avoid confusion. Sometimes they might find it more comforting to write or draw to get their message across.

Remember, if you see someone on your journey who you think may be vulnerable or at risk, let us know. Find an officer or a member of staff, or call us on 0800 40 50 40 or text us on 61016.

The National Autistic Society and National Police Chief’s Council have produced a guide to autism for criminal justice professionals.

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