Police and autism: ASD subjects present an incredible challenge to cops

Persons with brain-based disorders are more likely to have run-ins with the police than others, but they are far less likely to commit a crime


The light bars are flashing. There’s a cacophony of voices. The responding officers are putting hands on a resistant subject. All hell breaks loose. This could be about any call a cop encounters, but when the call involves a person who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the event itself and its aftermath can get even more difficult for everyone concerned.

“You want to really pay attention to the behaviors,” of persons exhibiting sings of being on the autism spectrum, Susan Hamre recently told me during a videotaped interview that will appear in coming weeks on PoliceOne. Frequent readers of this space will recall that Susan is a friend of PoliceOne — and a friend of police officers — who speaks frequently on the subject of police contacts with ASD subjects. Among the things that Susan reinforced during our discussion at ILEETA 2011 in Wheeling last month, was the fact that ASD subjects tend to react very differently — and sometimes unpredictably — to outside stimuli such as lights and sounds and physical contact. Those light bars, that din of voices, and that hands-on contact are very different for an ASD person than someone who might be considered to be neurotypical.

“It can produce an over-response to the sensory input from the lights or the siren. Even a shiny badge can do one of two things. It can be too bright or too shiny for them to respond to or it can produce a lot of interest and they may actually go to reach for it. Someone on the higher end of the spectrum — usually referred to as Asperger’s — may know a lot about guns and have a keen interest. They may be so interested in the officer’s gun that they may actually reach for it, and that can be very confronting for the officer.”

Current data suggests that one out of every 110 children are diagnosed with ASD, and that these individuals cross all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines and affect thousands of Americans throughout the U.S. About half of people with ASD either cannot speak or they have difficulty speaking. Furthermore, their ability to interpret nonverbal communication is also typically impaired.

“They may be verbal, and they may not. They may process information much more slowly than you or I would. So if you say, ‘Son, what’s your name?’ you’ll want to give that child or that person some more time to process that before expecting them to say what their name is. And you might see what looks like kind of a shut down or an inability to really have much eye contact or engage with you as if you’re even there.”

To someone not on “the spectrum” it may seem incredulous that a human being might encounter another person and not distinguish them from intimate objects like furniture, but this indeed can sometimes be the case for individuals stricken with some form of ASD. Making matters worse, many individuals with ASD exhibit no outward signs indicating their affliction.

“They could be Gerber-baby-darling people. They may not have any overt signs that anything is different — in fact, typically they don’t — so it makes it doubly difficult,” says Hamre.

Late today, I was able to connect with Officer Andrew Gammicchia, currently a School Resource Officer with the Shelby (Mich.) Township Police Department soon headed back to patrol the streets. Andrew and his wife, former Officer Carolyn Gammicchia, are the founders of L.E.A.N. On Us (the Law Enforcement Awareness Network). The mission of their organization “is to provide first responders with information and resources that will allow them to better serve individuals within their communities affected by hidden disabilities and mental illness.”

“I’m an officer — have been for over twenty five years,” Gammicchia told me. “We started L.E.A.N. On Us in 2002 because we felt there was a need to provide instruction on ‘appropriate response, appropriate preparedness’ for officers and community members for how to best meet the needs of individuals with disabilities and living with mental illness as well as their families.”

There are numerous resources available on the L.E.A.N. On Us website, including a PDF containing 20 pocket cards with information about the Characteristics of People on the Autism Spectrum.

I’ve presented this information in other ways at other times (and it is posted to one of Hamre’s websites) but it is worth contemplation here. Under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders, there are five disorders that share distinct characteristics unique to classify and identify an Autism Spectrum Disorder:

1.) Autistic Disorder
2.) Asperger’s Disorder
3.) Rett’s Syndrome
4.) Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
5.) Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified

Remember that people with autism — children and adults alike — as well as people with other cognitive or developmental disabilities are less likely to commit a crime than others, but they are more likely than ever before to:

Live independently without support
Be out in public alone, without family or care providers
Work, attend school, use public transportation, and even drive
Have their access to public places and other freedoms challenged
Have a medical emergency
Be harassed and otherwise bullied
Be a victim of sexual assault and other serious crimes
Attract the attention of the police

When I first wrote about this subject back in August 2009, I had discussed the issue with my friend and colleague, Gary Klugiewicz. He said something then that is equally true today (and will likely remain true for some time to come).

“Persons with brain-based disorders are more likely to have run-ins with the police than others,” Gary said, “but they are far less likely to commit a crime. When they get arrested or when an encounter becomes violent between an officer and a subject with autism or other brain-based disorder, it’s often because neither party knew how to communicate with the other.”

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 800 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

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