Autism and Law Enforcement

Ella Rain
Police officer

Autism and law enforcement is a complicated topic because it is easy to misinterpret behavioral responses that are common in the spectrum. Emergencies are challenging, and dealing with a child or adult on the spectrum can make the situation more difficult. Many resources can help law enforcement and members of the community recognize the signs of autism in crises.

Challenges with Autism and Law Enforcement

Professionals working in law enforcement are dedicated to helping others. They respond to crises, and they are often the first to arrive at the scene. Police encounter many different people, some of which may be on the autism spectrum.

Police typically follow a protocol in emergencies, but the protocol isn't always the best approach to dealing with people with autism. Autistic disorders are often invisible, and some behaviors can appear noncompliant or threatening. Challenges with law enforcement and autism involve appearance, behaviors and communication.

Appearance

There are no physical characteristics of autism that really make an individual on the spectrum stand out. The invisible disorder can be very difficult to detect on first sight. In fact, pervasive developmental disorders can go undetected by parents and physicians.

Behaviors

Autistic behaviors may make it appear as if an individual on the spectrum is noncompliant. Poor eye contact may make it seem as if the individual is trying to hide something, and problems with following directions can make it appear as if the individual is causing trouble. Problematic behaviors during crisis can appear.

  • Tendency to tantrum
  • Inability to recognize dangerous situations
  • May stand too close to others
  • May have difficulty staying still

Communication

Communication problems can be difficult to overcome in emergencies. The person may seem to ignore directions and commands, and he or she may simply repeat what the officer says. This can lead to serious problems when an officer is making requests during a crisis. The individual may appear argumentative and he or she may not understand the role of a police officer.

Resources for Law Enforcement and Autism

Things can go terribly wrong in a crisis situation, especially when impairments in communication and behavior are present. Police fatally shot an unarmed autistic man because he did not respond to commands, and it appeared that he was reaching for a weapon. The death of Steven Eugene Washington, who was 27 years old, is a lamentable example of how things can go terribly wrong during a crisis. Now, many resources and trainings offer hope that this type of tragedy doesn't happen again.

  • Autism Risk and Safety Management is a one-stop resource for autism and law enforcement, and the site offers critical information for other people who may be involved in a crisis, including emergency first responders and the autism community.
  • Avoiding Unfortunate Situations is a law enforcement handout that defines autism and offers guidance. The handout offers examples of autistic behaviors that can help officers recognize when they are dealing with a person on the spectrum. In addition, it suggests responses and tactics law enforcement can use to deal with the situation.
  • The Law Enforcement Awareness Network (LEAN) is an excellent resource for first responders who may deal with people who have invisible mental illnesses or developmental disabilities. The resource offers trainings, brochures and fact sheets.

Autism, Advocates, and Law Enforcement Professionals

Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People With Autism Spectrum Disorders by Dennis Debbaudt offers help for law enforcement and the autism community. The book is invaluable because the author is an advocate, investigator and a parent of a teenager with autism. He has empathy for everyone involved, and the experience necessary to offer insight from each perspective.

Training and Autism Awareness

Parents and caretakers of children and adults with autism can do their part as well. While wandering can occur, try to keep severely autistic individuals supervised. Use identification cards or bracelets, and teach the individual to present identifying information.

  • Teach how to identify police officers
  • Use stories that relate to emergencies
  • Teach words and phrases to use during crisis

With the multitude of individuals that law enforcement deals with on a daily basis, encounters with autistic individuals are bound to happen. Training and awareness can help police serve the public effectively, and with less risk. It is important to keep in mind that both law enforcement and people with autism need to have training to prepare for emergencies.

Autism and Law Enforcement