New rules for special needs

Fitting help: The Police Autism Centre at Pulapol has helped to ease the burden of parents on the force who have autistic children like Insp Azlina Shamsuddin. ­— Photos: AZLINA ABDULLAH/The Star

THE arrest of an autistic man in 2018 for allegedly molesting a woman was a dark moment, not only for the man’s family but also for the police, which led to the force immediately formulating a set of new rules to deal with such cases.

What many didn’t know was that at the time the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM) was already grappling with some of its own officers’ struggle to care for children on the autism spectrum.

Former Deputy Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Hussin Ismail has heard firsthand

from such families about the challenges they face raising autistic children.

“I used to interview officers for promotion when I served on the Police Force Commission Board and there was an officer who told me he had no problem carrying out his duties, other than how to care for his autistic child, ” said Hussin, who is now deputy chairman of Yayasan Pengaman.

Yayasan Pengaman is an NGO that focuses on the welfare of PDRM retirees and personnel.

He said the officer did not seem to have any proper support and the problem even drove the officer’s wife to attempt suicide. Thankfully, the officer managed to deal with the situation and was able to send his child to a centre that could help him.

Another challenge was that the officer did not know of other colleagues who were going through the same situation, said Hussin: “There was no networking among parents with autistic children within the force, which got me thinking about setting up a proper care centre for them.”

His meetings with officers across the country confirmed his view on the lack of support for those in the force who have autistic children, while a meeting with a seargeant in Simpang Renggam, Johor, revealed how expensive therapy sessions can be for the children.

“He said he had to spend RM1,500 to send his child for proper care, so I was driven to do everything I could to create awareness about autism and set up a centre to provide the children with the care they need, ” said Hussin.

Raising awareness

 Hussin:  We came together to create an SOP for special needs suspects, victims and witnesses.Hussin: We came together to create an SOP for special needs suspects, victims and witnesses.

Hussin started reading up about autism spectrum disorder to gain a better understanding about it and also learned from former Genius Kurnia director and special education expert Assoc Prof Dr Hasnah Toran of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Genius Kurnia is an early intervention centre for children with autism and their families.

Hussin believes strongly that it is crucial to first raise awareness about autism within the police force so staff members could be more empathetic towards those managing it in their families.

He relayed an incident when he once visited a General Operations Force camp quarters in Kuantan – those living there had requested for a family with an autistic child to be moved out because they claimed the family could not control the child.

“They made such accusations because they did not understand about autism, ” he said.

Hussin also began speaking about autism at promotion interviews and also met with state police chiefs to request meetings with families with autistic children

He also held seminars to get more people to understand the disorder but it was the autistic man’s arrest in September 2018 that expedited PDRM’s efforts to not only understand autism but how to manage special needs suspects, victims and witnesses.

Proper guidelines

The 2018 case highlighted how the typical police standard operating procedure did not work in cases involving autistic individuals, and the police faced angry backlash and criticism about how it dealt with the suspect.

“Issuing statements about it was not enough, we had to answer with action, so we came together to create an SOP for special needs suspects, victims and witnesses, as well as a centre for police families with autistic children, ” Hussin said.

It took about six months for the team to create the SOP with input from experts like Assoc Prof Hasnah and the National Autism Society of Malaysia. In March 2019, the SOP was launched by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was the Home Minister then, in conjunction with the Police Day celebration that year.

Now as part of its SOP, an expert has to be a part of the questioning team when police are dealing with special needs people.

Among those involved in formulating the SOP was IGP secretariat chief Comm Datuk Dr Lee Bee Phang, who said it has been included in the training module at the police academy.

“We are only the second country in South-East Asia to have this SOP, after the Philippines, ” she said.

The secretariat has also gone on roadshows with Genius Kurnia to brief police personnel nationwide about the SOP and also educate them about autism and how to recognise an autistic person.

The roadshow has so far reached almost 3,000 police officers nationwide, she noted.

With the SOP in place, Comm Lee hopes police personnel will be more discerning when facing a special needs person.

While lessons were learned from the 2018 case, Comm Lee said police personnel always need to make every effort to be compassionate and understanding when a special needs person is involved.

“Between 2015 and 2020,26 people on the autism spectrum had been investigated for alleged criminal acts and were released by order of the deputy public prosecutor, ” she said.

After the SOP was launched, the team shifted its focus to the Autism Care Centre at the Malaysian Police Training Centre (Pulapol), which was launched on March 25 by Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador.

“He is a strong advocate for the centre and has also helped us raise funds to help Yayasan Pengaman manage the place, ” she said.

Korperal Mohd Saiful Musa, whose autistic daughter attends classes at the centre, said he can empathise with parents who are worried about their autistic child being questioned by authorities as a suspect, victim or witness, and is grateful that an SOP is in place.

“Yes, there are certain procedures to follow but some staff members may not have what it takes to deal with special needs people or just don’t know what to do when they are faced with one.

“When that happens, they may just follow the normal procedure and can come across as unprofessional, so thankfully there is the SOP now to guide police with that, ” he said.

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