A man with autism whose diagnosis guided him away from living a life of crime is helping deliver specialist training to police officers to help improve their understanding of those living with the disorder.
Richie Smith was diagnosed with autism in his early 30s after almost finding himself on the wrong side of the law.
Not understanding why he behaved in certain ways, it led Richie down a path of destructive behaviour through his adolescence and early adulthood.
It wasn’t until getting his diagnosis that things started to make sense – and now he wants to help police better understand how people with autism may behave when coming into contact with them.
Sergeant Phil Atkinson, who specialises in the Police Education Qualification Framework, has been working with Richie to design and deliver a training package specifically for police officers to help them understand some of the sensory and communication difficulties people with autism can face on a day-to-day basis, and how this might affect them if they encounter the Criminal Justice System.
Sgt Atkinson said: “Protecting and supporting those who are vulnerable is the absolute priority for us and so it is crucial we understand the needs of those who may require additional support.”
“We are rolling out the training programme for all officers and new recruits to the force to teach them how to interact with someone with autism whether this be as a victim, witness or suspect.”
“Any autistic person who encounters the criminal justice system is likely to experience higher than usual levels of anxiety. It’s likely to be a stressful experience because of the circumstances leading to their involvement.”
“But in addition, for many the anxiety of having their routine changed, their actions questioned or their circumstances scrutinised can lead to unmanageable outbursts of frustration or equally inexplicable silences.”
“By working with Richie as our expert by experience, he can share his experiences with officers to give them a better understanding of how someone with autism may react when encountering the police.”
“The reactions that autistic people show are all different, but with knowledge and understanding, we can support the people it affects.”
Richie Smith, who runs Awesometistic – a community interest company supporting people with autism – said he is proud to be part of the training programme and wants to do more to help.
Mr Smith said: “I get a lot of feedback from helping people and I feel better when I have helped others. I don’t want other people to suffer the way I did growing up.”
“Everybody knows the word ‘autism’ but I’m not sure everybody understands it. The most frustrating thing is that everyone with autism is different and doesn’t have a look. It doesn’t fit into a bracket and you always feel in life like you’re constantly justifying your actions to everybody.”
“Confidence is the key and just getting kids to understand that being them is okay. Autism is awesome but sometimes it’s really hard.”
“When I do the talks for the police they see me for an hour – they don’t see the meltdowns and the basket of sensory toys that I have to help me when I’m having a sensory overload.”
“I come across really confident when I do my talks but the hardest thing is that everyone thinks I’m really functional, but actually no, I just got scared in life and had to become functional and I don’t want anyone who comes into contact with police to feel like this.”
Mr Smith added: “When doing my talks with police I always say to take a second to think – does this person have autism? When going into a situation, think, does this person have autism and do we need to approach this differently?
“Don’t be embarrassed to ask someone if they have autism. It’s just a question. I always say if police officers think someone is showing signs of having autism, treat them as if they have autism. It doesn’t matter if they have a diagnosis, you aren’t hurting anybody, if anything you are better trying to help them.
This week is World Autism Awareness Week which helps raise awareness of autism and how people can help support people or families living with autism.
For more information about the week of action visit
National Autism Society