Law Enforcement and Autism: Why it’s an Issue and What to Do

People with autism commonly come in contact with law enforcement and first responders for a number of reasons, and are five times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population according to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

  • “Training for first responders on autism on how to interact with individuals with an autism diagnosis is critical,” said Scott Badesch, former president/CEO of Autism Society of America. “Effective training creates a productive partnership among those impacted by autism and first responders to assure the safety and well-being of all.”

Some police forces like those of St. Johns County in Florida and Mesa, Arizona are helping to lead the way with educating their police forces on autism.

  • “We are excited to be the first law enforcement agency in Florida to undergo autism training and certification through IBCCES so that we have the tools and resources to benefit our entire community, including these special individuals,” said Sheriff David Shoar, of St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.

Mesa, Arizona has gone even further by having their police officers, first responders and medical personnel all trained in autism. When talking about the training and how it will help their staff:

“It allows us to meet the needs of all citizens that we respond to and serve the community with CARE (Compassion. Accountability. Respect. Excellence.),” said Battalion Chief Chuck Busboom of Mesa Fire and Medical.

Common Symptoms of Autism Can Lead to Frequent Police Run-ins

Some of the most common reasons people with autism will be questioned or forced to interact with police officers are stimming, wandering or elopement, and meltdowns.

Stimming Can Often Be Misinterpreted

Stimming can often be mistaken for suspicious or drug-related behavior as in the case of Connor, who required surgery for his ankle after questioning escalated to him being tackled in a park.

Elopement can Lead to Search and Rescue Operations

Elopement or wandering can often lead to manhunts for someone who doesn’t necessarily want to be found, causing potentially tense run-ins with law enforcement or first responders.

“In this six-year sample, nearly a third cases were either fatal or required some level of medical attention. Some cases demonstrated how police training and police familiarity with the specific individual was key in decreasing overall risk, including secondary risks, such as restraint. To reduce risk, it is recommended that first responders be trained on the signs of ASD, its associated water and traffic risks, and proper interaction techniques.” –National Autism Association

In many of these situations, the person with autism will perceive the situation very differently from the way a normal person would. It is often important to understand that for a search to be successful, including one very long search for a missing boy in Virginia:

  • “Because of his autism, `{`the boy`}` probably didn’t know that he was lost. If he heard people coming through the woods, he might well have taken cover from them, thinking it was a game of hide-and-seek. Or he might not have wanted to be found by a stranger, even one calling out his name. This made efforts to locate him extremely difficult, and it’s how `{`he`}` managed to elude what would soon become one of the largest search-and-rescue operations in Virginia history.” -Outside Online

How Common is Elopement? (Very)

Elopement is often dangerous for the person with autism due to their inability to perceive certain threats properly in their environment.

In a study that conducted a survey of parents of 1218 children with ASD:

  • 49 percent of respondents said their child had attempted to elope at least once by age 4
  • 26 percent were missing long enough to cause concern
  • 24 percent were in danger of drowning and 65 percent were in danger of traffic injury
  • Elopement became more common in individuals with more severe autism

Meltdowns Can Lead to Escalations Where Police Become Involved

Luanne Haygood, who’s son is on the autism spectrum and was 11 years old when he was charged with 5 felonies, said,

“There’s so many 7- to 12-year-old boys with autism that are getting arrested for meltdowns and behavior that can be avoided of the schools know how to react.”

With Autism Prevalence and Inclusion Rising, Law Enforcement Has not Adjusted

  • “Law Enforcement Officers have, of necessity, become an increased presence in the mental health field due to the increase in prevalence in the community of those who were once institutionalized. Historically, resources have not been made available to them to allow them to better serve this new community. Findings from this study indicate that officers in the Commonwealth of Kentucky are not entirely prepared, due to a lack of understanding, and a lack of confidence of ability to interact with those with ASD in a way which would provide a positive outcome.” – Study on law enforcement and autism in Kentucky

2 police officers on foot patrol

The Importance of Autism Training for Law Enforcement

This is not a unique problem to Kentucky, as Steve Silberman states when referring to programs to train officers about autism:

“The scarcity of these programs is a sad legacy of the decades when autism was mistakenly believed to be a rare condition, and many autistic people lived out their lives in state-run institutions.”

This lack of training can often lead to officers mistaking behaviors of autism for other unrelated issues, causing them to potentially escalate situations when it is inappropriate and put people with autism at risk of unnecessary harm.

In a study meant to find how well emergency responders recognized signs of autism in a person in a simulated trauma setting, the study found:

  • 27 percent provided reassurance to the individual with ASD
  • 1 percent elicited information
  • 11 percent asked bystanders for information or assistance
  • 35 percent suggested a disability
  • 13 percent considered ASSD specifically as a possibility

The conclusion of the study: “Few EMRs in this study optimally interacted with adolescents with ASD or recognized a disability. These findings suggest a strong need for targeted educational interventions.”

While EMRs are not the same as law enforcement, these types of studies are unfortunately quite rare and we were not able to locate any similar studies for law enforcement. While the numbers would undoubtedly be different for law enforcement (whether better or worse), the lack of understanding of how to approach and interact with people with autism effectively is increasingly coming to the forefront for both first responders and law enforcement alike.

“Now that we know that autism is common, and comes in all the hues and shades of a broad human spectrum, we need to give law enforcement officers the knowledge that they need to avoid turning a routine call into a life-altering calamity.”- Steve Silberman, author of “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.”

Autism training for law enforcement

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