Police and autism: Know the basics

Newly-released statistics from the CDC offer an ideal moment to remind ourselves of the sensitivity of police contacts with subjects with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  First and foremost, we must remember that while many do show some outward signs indicating their affliction some individuals with ASD exhibit no outward signs, making some contacts even more difficult for officers.  In addition, people “in the spectrum” have differing personalities, personal interests, levels of intelligence, social interests, and romantic and sexual desires.  Simply said, they can simply blend into the fabric of a cop’s beat such that you’d not have any clue what you’re really dealing with — until things have gone well and truly sideways, and an encounter becomes “the next big thing” on YouTube. 

So, please advised that ASD subjects tend to react very differently — and sometimes unpredictably — to outside stimuli such as lights and sounds and physical contact. Everything from a police officer’s command presence to “going hands-on” are very different for an ASD person than someone who might be considered to be neurotypical.  The light bar atop your squad car may cause an ASD subject to become transfixed, or to lash out unexpectedly.  ASD subjects might be fascinated by — and uncontrollably attracted to — your sidearm, your badge, or another part of your duty gear.  The mere presence of you or your squad can set off an ASD subject, or set them into an inexplicable, intransigent silence.

Further, we must bear in mind that about half of people with ASD either cannot speak or they have some degree of difficulty speaking — even their ability to interpret nonverbal communication is typically impaired to some extent.  Finally, people with autism — as well as people with other cognitive or developmental disabilities — are less likely to commit a crime than others, but are more likely to...

Live independently without support
Be out in public alone, without family or care providers
Work, attend school, use public transportation, and drive vehicles
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

While there is no known single cause for Autism Spectrum Disorder, it’s generally accepted that ASD is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function.  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

When I first wrote about this topic back in 2009, I quoted liberally from an excellent report entitled, “Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Special Needs Subject Response Guide for Police Officers” and I will do so again here. 

“Subjects with ASD may reply with seemingly meaningless answers to your questions or discuss irrelevant topics,” that report stated.  “Don’t let this frustrate you. It is best understood as an attempt to reach out, socialize, or establish communication.” 

Furthermore, persons on the autism spectrum often will “make little or no eye contact. They may appear to be ignoring you or failing to pay attention. Don’t mistake unusual or inappropriate eye contact as disrespect.”

You may be advised to not force eye contact on a person with ASD because it may unnecessarily frighten them. Further, “people with ASD may act-out when stressed,” that 2009 report stated.  Such behaviors may include “yelling, pounding table tops, throwing things, or knocking over chairs. Often if you ignore the acting-out behaviors, the behaviors will stop. In order to ignore the behavior, the police officer could step back and look bored. Conversely, reacting immediately and forcefully to acting-out behavior will more likely reinforce it. Instead, use the technique of modeling calm behavior, give them time to decompress, and then continue with your contact.”

Finally, people with ASD may not know what is — or isn’t — appropriate or safe in a given situation and frequently will not understand what others want or need from them.

Even cops. 

Maybe especially cops. 

When it comes to interacting with people with ASD, the onus of responsibility falls upon the Sheepdogs to learn to speak and act in a way that the Sheep can understand.  At the very least, the Sheepdogs must understand the Sheep, because the opposite is almost never going to be the case.

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 900 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). Doug 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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