AUTISTIC DETECTIVES – ADVANTAGES OF AUTISM IN INVESTIGATION
The success of Mark Haddon’s critically acclaimed novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, narrated from the perspective of a young autistic protagonist, marked the emergence of the increasingly visible autistic-detective trope. Famous fictional characters fitting this trope include The Bridge’s Saga Noren, Bordertown’s Kari Sorjonen and Sherlock Holmes. Beginning with an overview of autism, this article will explore the factual basis for the autistic detective trope, highlighting ways in which autistic traits may lend themselves to an investigation.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition estimated to affect around 1 in 100 people in the UK. It is characterised by difficulties with social communication and social interaction, repetitive behaviours and routines, and highly focussed interests. It affects people in different ways; some people may be highly intelligent with outstanding ability to communicate; others are severely disabled with associated learning difficulties and may be non-verbal. It is not uncommon for verbal autistic people to become non-verbal when they feel overwhelmed. Autism usually is diagnosed by a specialist in such diagnoses and is typically done after referral by a GP.
It is important to remember that each person is different. Therefore the condition affects everyone in different ways. It is common to have associated co-morbidities such as anxiety, depression, and sensory processing issues. Although negative perceptions of autism have dominated public discourse, there are also many positive attributes associated with autism, some of which are listed below.
“We recognise that valuing diversity is not just a moral obligation. It is business-critical.” Nikesh Mehta, GCHQ Deputy Director
Many organisations actively recruit and retain autistic people. GCHQ (part of the intelligence services) employs hundreds of people on the autistic spectrum in the UK. They are highly valued for their attention to detail, sustained focus, pattern recognition, and innovative thinking. Auticon is a company that exclusively employs autistic IT professionals and provides workplace support to enable them to thrive in their roles. Giants like JP Morgan, IKEA, Microsoft, Vodafone, and Google have all understood and embraced the powerful ways autistic people can benefit their businesses.
Within the world of intelligence analysis and police investigation, autistic analysts and detectives have unique skills to bring to the table. Autistic people may be particularly drawn to careers within policing and other uniformed services due to these professions’ predictability and structure in terms of uniform and top-down hierarchy. Attention to detail, enhanced long-term memory, and analytical skills contribute to enhanced pattern recognition, enabling autistic detectives to make valuable, unique, and innovative contributions to team investigations.
The Israeli Military has recognised the usefulness of these heightened perceptual skills. Israel Defence Force’s “Visual Intelligence Division,” otherwise known as Unit 9900, counts dozens of autistic soldiers amongst its members. Those belonging to Unit 9900 carry out real-time analysis of complex images delivered from military satellites worldwide to detect suspicious objects or movement. These tasks are highly suitable for autistic people, given their predisposition to have excellent attention to detail and spot patterns, anomalies, and trends easily.
Another highly beneficial characteristic of autistic investigators is their capacity for sustained focus. This focus, coupled with a determination to complete tasks, often can explore broader context and innovation. Innovation is supported by autistic tendencies towards logical, science-based decision-making, leading to independent and unbiased conclusions.
Supporting autistic individuals in the workplace
Autism is classed as a disability and, as such, falls under the protected characteristics in the Equality Act (2010). There is a wide range of information available about supporting autistic individuals in the workplace, including suggestions of reasonable adjustments. Some of these are listed under the resources below. These may be simple, such as wearing noise-reducing headphones, not being disturbed when working, having reduced lighting, any instruction by email, and allowing for extra processing time. It is essential to find out the specific requirements of the individual. If HR has little experience with autism spectrum conditions, then there are specialist organisations, job coaches and independent consultants who can assist.
Clear and direct communication is essential, and most autistic people prefer structure, familiarity and predictability in their (working) lives. It is important to remember that a person is an individual first, so always work with the person to find out how to best support them.
Some of the most talented and creative people have a neurodiverse profile, of which dyslexia, autistic spectrum condition, dyscalculia and dyspraxia are probably the best known. It is essential to recognise the positives, maximise the individual’s potential, and address the challenges that may present in the workplace. Autistic staff needs can be met through advice, discussion, support and appropriate adjustments. Sometimes professional input is required, and schemes such as Access to Work can be valuable to support the individual.
The National Police Autism Association (NPAA) is a supportive online-only forum for police officers and staff and associated professions, where there is a wealth of information available. Membership is free. The platform is for members only and is not accessible to the general public.
A workforce that reflects societal diversity, including neurodiversity, is essential to understand challenges and issues from different perspectives. Recognising the value of individual differences, and embracing them, benefits everyone. For neurodiverse people, a supportive work environment allows them to thrive professionally. Innovative approaches will come more naturally from a neurodiverse workforce in an environment that values diversity.
Sustained focus, attention to detail, enhanced long-term memory, excellent pattern recognition, and an analytical approach make autistic people suitable for intelligence and analytical roles. Many organisations would benefit significantly from adopting inclusive practices, for example, through targeted recruitment initiatives. The organisations that have already done so, such as GCHQ, have found this highly successful approach.
This article was written by Tanja Conway-Grim and Grace Towers who are both autistic volunteers for Locate International. Having great attention to detail, being analytical, possessing thinking ‘outside the box’ skills and total focus and perseverance are some of the qualities that make autistic people ideal for analytical and investigative roles. This article is an initial exploration into the potential of autistic detectives. An organisation such as Locate International hugely benefits from the input of autistic volunteers and it hopes to attract more dedicated volunteers on the autistic spectrum.