Autism and police: Police interactions with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) require patience, understanding, and effective communication. Unfortunately, these things sometimes fall by the wayside in high-pressure situations. Police departments have a mixed track record dealing with those on the spectrum.
In 2020, a 13-year-old boy with ASD in Salt Lake City was shot by police while experiencing an episode, even though his mother made the call. In California, a 17-year-old teenager with autism was slammed into the ground by a police officer after trying to run from an arrest for a crime he was not responsible for. These events are sadly too common, occurring with enough frequency that they are worth worrying about. With recent CDC statistics indicating that autism diagnoses are at higher frequencies in minority communities that already experience more interactions with police, the trend becomes concerning.
At ABA Centers of America, our priorities are autism awareness and acceptance. Regarding autism and police, one wrong encounter can be grievously dangerous and even fatal. It’s important to address this topic with the seriousness it deserves. This blog will cover why those on the spectrum struggle around police officers and what parents and police departments can do to foster compassion and understanding when situations with the law arise.
1. Why Those on the Spectrum Struggle with Police
Whether a routine stop, a case of mistaken identity, or a correct reaction to a crime committed, police stops are stressful. The threat of legal ramifications, jail, or violence is possible during every interaction with law enforcement. Even for neurotypical folk, the event can be unsettling, bringing about uneasy emotions.
During a police stop, the officers only want compliance from you. Remaining calm, answering procedural questions, showing your hands, and following orders are what officers expect. People on the spectrum face several behavioral challenges that make these interactions complicated.
- Sensory Issues: Those with ASD may feel overwhelmed by loud noises, shouting and physical contact. When this occurs, they can have an emotional breakdown or begin stimming, often manifesting as hand movements that make them feel comfortable. Officers won’t necessarily know how to react to this and view innocuous behavior as a threat.
Police sirens and officers shouting orders can trigger intense anxiety for those on the spectrum. The problem only worsens when dealing with teenagers and children with less control over their condition.
- Communication Challenges: A hallmark of autism spectrum disorder is difficulty comprehending social situations and others’ emotions. They have difficulty expressing their emotions or are unfamiliar with the expectations during a stop. An individual with ASD may not understand that a police officer expects them to sit still and answer questions they find bothersome. They may act out by running away (also known as elopement), getting too close, or fidgeting, which the police often view as dangerous behavior.
- Police Overzealousness: Though there is no maliciousness behind the spectrum of reactions to police pressure, officers may interpret it as such. Despite their training, officers deal with violent interactions daily and prepare to expect the worst, prioritizing their safety. They can become contentious and anxious when someone neurodivergent expresses their emotions in a way they are not familiar with.
Police officers always want to see your hands and not be surprised by a weapon. Those on the spectrum may not understand that police get nervous when this doesn’t happen, and the situation may escalate to tragic ends.
2. Autism and Police: What Can You Do to Prevent Misunderstandings?
There are several techniques to ensure interactions with the police go smoothly. The following are ways to de-escalate or prevent a situation from turning confrontational:
- Disclosure: While there is no legal obligation to disclose an autism diagnosis to law enforcement, informing an officer about autism can help them better understand your behaviors and respond appropriately. Disclosure can occur at the beginning of an interaction or if the situation escalates.
- Communication strategies: Individuals with autism often have challenges with social communication, including understanding and responding to verbal and nonverbal cues. It is essential to communicate clearly and calmly, using simple and concrete language. Consider asking questions like “Am I too close to you?” and “Where would you like me to stand?”
Something else that can ease the burden of interaction is a communication card or ID indicating your diagnosis and communication preferences.
- Self-regulation techniques: Police encounters can be stressful for individuals with autism. Learning and practicing self-regulation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or sensory grounding techniques, can help manage anxiety and stress during interactions.
- Advocacy and support: Having a trusted companion or advocate present during a police encounter can be beneficial. This person can help facilitate communication and ensure the interaction remains respectful and understanding. If nobody is there, consider informing the police you have autism and ask for permission to reach for your phone and put a trusted individual on speakerphone.
3. Parents of Children with Autism and the Police
Just as we prepare our children for school, careers, and relationships, we must inform them about near-inevitable encounters with the police. Teach your child basic communication skills that are relevant to police interactions. These skills include understanding and responding to simple questions, identifying themselves by name, and providing necessary information (such as their address or phone number).
Ensuring your child knows basic police procedures, like remaining calm, keeping their hands visible, and following instructions, is vital. Engaging in role-playing activities with your child to simulate police encounters is a good way to prepare them. Practicing scenarios such as being stopped by a police officer while walking, riding a bike, or driving can go a long way. If you believe your child is ready, explain their rights to remain silent and how to avoid arbitrary detainment unless under arrest.
4. Autism Awareness and Law Enforcement
With growing autism awareness, police departments have realized that interacting with neurodivergent individuals requires patience and compassion. Several police departments and organizations have initiated training programs to equip officers with the knowledge and skills necessary for these interactions. These include:
- Autism awareness training: Many police departments now provide specialized training to their officers on autism awareness and understanding. These programs educate officers about the characteristics of autism, communication strategies, and de-escalation techniques to facilitate more positive and appropriate responses.
- Community partnerships: Collaboration between police departments and autism advocacy organizations or community support groups have proven beneficial in promoting positive interactions. These partnerships often involve joint training sessions, community outreach programs, and the development of resource materials for officers.
- Specialized response teams: Some jurisdictions have implemented specialized response teams comprising officers trained in handling interactions involving individuals with autism. These teams better understand the unique needs and challenges faced by individuals with autism, allowing for more effective and compassionate responses.
- Enhanced dispatch protocols: Dispatchers play a crucial role in providing critical information to officers responding to a call. Enhancing dispatch protocols to include relevant information about individuals with autism can help officers better understand the situation and tailor their responses accordingly.
How ABA Centers of America Can Help
The issues that individuals on the spectrum face when interacting with police are all related to communication and sensory overload. At ABA Centers of America, we can help prepare you or your family members for these challenging interactions. We offer Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, which is proven to help those diagnosed with autism learn vital coping mechanisms to handle daily life. From self-care skills like brushing their teeth, academic skills that help them succeed in school, and complex communication that can help during a police stop, ABA therapy can help.
Call 844-923-4222 or message us online for a free consultation and make a difference today.