Autism Training in Law Enforcement and the Call to Action

By Carol S. Weinman, Esq., C.A.S., National Speaker and Author

The willing desire to work together in unraveling the puzzle of autism is growing among law enforcement. The number of calls I receive to present on the topic of autism and police training increases every day. The reason: law enforcement officers want to better understand the complex mindset of those with autism spectrum disorder and more importantly, learn how to interact with them.

Hardly a month goes by anymore when the media isn’t reporting about someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who is arrested or has an unfortunate police encounter. That’s because what appears to be suspicious or criminal activity is behavior characteristic of an individual with ASD. So, how can a police officer know the difference? Well, the first step in prevention of these traumatic incidents among police officers and the ASD community is education.

When I have conducted presentations and trainings on the topic of ASD and crime, I often witness that “light bulb” moment in the facial expression of those in the audience. Police officers approach me afterward to say, “Wow, I learned so much. Thank you.” There is an obvious sense of relief. After all, given a choice, who wouldn’t want tools to make their job easier? And, while the topic of crime and ASD has been considered an important one, recent media coverage is creating the need for education and training to move to the head of the class.

Training and education also needs to take place in schools. A good deal of police intervention begins there. Take the case in Florida of John Benji Haygood, an autistic 10-year-old boy who was taken out of school in handcuffs for allegedly assaulting a teacher. As substantiated on a videotape of the incident, Haywood pleaded, “I don’t want to be touched. Please don’t touch me.” Haygood’s mother said her son has had behavioral issues because of his autism, but said that there needs to be an alternative way to deal with him. She said that individuals with autism are unfortunately arrested because we don’t know what else to do.

According to the sheriff’s office and prosecutors, they weren’t aware the boy had autism. The state’s attorney said the office will consider his autism as they look at the case. While I commend the state’s attorney for the willingness to view the boy’s conduct in a new light, we need to do better. While the offer by the state attorney’s office to reconsider what action will be taken is indeed progress, the long-lasting emotional and psychological impact on a 10-year-old boy with autism of being handcuffed and detained overnight is too great a price to pay.

Incidents like this one in Florida should force us to question whether this is really the way we want to address “violent” behavior or meltdowns among those with autism. While I believe we can all agree that we must transcend how we respond to such outbursts, the challenge is in making that happen. 

For information on law enforcement training, training in schools, or in the community, please contact [email protected].

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