Supporting Eyewitness Testimony By Individuals with Autism through Witness-Directed Interviews
Adults with autism may be more likely to be interviewed in the criminal justice system as a witness, victim or a suspect, yet they also experience specific memory difficulties that can impact their ability to recall episodic information in a coherent, relevant and complete narrative. Previous research has shown that current police interviewing techniques are ineffective in supporting these difficulties to obtain detailed, accurate memory recall from them. We developed the ‘Witness-Aimed First Account’ (WAFA) interview specifically with the aim of supporting executive function, social demand, narrative and episodic memory difficulties in autism to improve the quality of their accounts within a legally appropriate, non-leading framework and without constraining recall. In contrast to current police interviewing techniques, where uninterrupted and unbound, parameter-free recall from the outset is the gold standard, WAFA was developed to diminish socio-cognitive demands by encouraging participants to generate and direct their own discrete, parameter-bound topics from the video in phase 1, before freely recalling information within each parameter-bound topic in turn in phase 2.
The primary aim of this research was to test this new method of interviewing (WAFA) for eliciting detailed, yet accurate, eyewitness accounts from individuals with autism. A second aim was to explore whether differences between autistic and typically developing (TD) witnesses’ recall would be diminished when the narrative structure of the to-be-remembered event was lost (i.e., whether TD witnesses would appear more autistic in their recall, ameliorating the relative disadvantage by autistic participants).
This study adopted a 2 (Group: Autism vs Typically Developing) x 2 (interview: WAFA vs. Control standard ‘achieving best evidence’ police interview) x 2 (Video: Scrambled vs. Unscrambled) mixed design, where Video was within participants. Specifically, participants were interviewed about their memory for two specially developed videos depicting criminal events. One video was ‘scrambled’ whereby clip segments were re-ordered, thus removing the narrative structure of the video; the other video was watched intact (the order in which videos were presented and whether video A or B was scrambled was counterbalanced between participants). Participants were interviewed using the same interview (WAFA vs. Control) for both videos. In WAFA interviews, rather than having a free flow verbalization of the entire event – which is difficult and inevitably results in underperformance by autistic adults – participants self-segmented their free narrative recollection right from the beginning. Once complete, they then revisited each of the self-directed free narrative topics in turn, in the order that they were recalled. Interviews were transcribed and coded according to the types of details recalled (e.g., persons, actions, surroundings, objects), completeness (i.e., number of correct details recalled), and accuracy (i.e., errors/all details recalled).
Data collection is still underway but preliminary results are promising. Although witnesses with autism recall fewer person and action details compared to TD witnesses overall, tentatively, WAFA interviews appear to ameliorate this difference, whilst also increasing the accuracy of autistic witnesses’ accounts without compromising completeness.
Witnesses with autism can make reliable witnesses if their socio-cognitive difficulties are supported appropriately at interview.