Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new statistics on the number of people believed to be affected in some way by autism — to be an Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) subject — and the new numbers are astounding. The condition is now believed to affect one in 68 school-age children — up from one in 88 just two years ago.
“That means virtually every grade in every elementary school has at least one child with autism — a seemingly astonishing rise for a condition that was nearly unheard of a generation ago,” USA Today said in its reporting.
We know from prior discussions on the topic that as the numbers of ASD subjects go up, the numbers of police interactions with them will inevitably go up as well. The new numbers from the CDC offer an excellent opportunity to review some of the basics, and explore some of the latest information to become available on the topic.
The PoliceOne Academy offers 24/7 access to must-have training on subjects like LEO contacts with ASD subjects (and myriad others). Learn more about how P1A can help your department.
First, we know that ASD individuals are highly likely to be the victims of all manner of criminal activity — from bullying to robbery to sexual assault. Further, ASD subjects often have psychological problems, such as depression and self-destructive behaviors, which can attract the attention of law enforcement. Finally, ASD subjects are typically unafraid of the dangers associated with water, strangers, heights, and other hazards, and can consequently have medical emergencies necessitating a public safety response.
You will encounter an ASD subject at some point — likely more than once — and those individuals will have a different response to police than “the usual suspects.” Remember that ASD subjects may react unpredictably to outside stimuli such as visual and audible queues, as well as physical human contact. Lights, sirens, a badge and a gun — even an officer’s command presence — are very different for an ASD person than someone considered to be “neurotypical.”
Susan Hamre — director of the Giant Steps Autism Training Center in Lisle (Ill.) — is an expert on ASD and someone with whom I regularly consult for updated information on this topic.
Hamre said that while there aren’t necessarily any “new tactics” to learn since I last wrote about the issue two years ago, there are some concepts she’s been talking about in her trainings which merit our attention today.
If you’re out looking for an ASD subject who has gone missing — and have no other information to go on — Hamre suggests one of your first stops should be the water in your AOR. Many ASD subjects are magnetically attracted to bodies of water, and far too many ASD subjects have tragically perished in lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams.
If you have access to a parent or caregiver, you may consider asking them questions such as:
• What are this individual’s ‘triggers’? • What are their sensory needs/challenges? • What interests them? Are they all about Spiderman, trains, keys, the color yellow, Star Wars, or something else? • What type of communication — pictures, spoken words, written words — works best with them? • Where are they likely to go? • Where had they recently been — McDonald’s, a grandparent’s home, a movie theater — and may be attempting to return?
Along with these questions, you’ll obviously get typical description of what they were wearing, any outstanding physical characteristics, etc..
Hamre shared a hypothetical scenario in which you’ve found an ASD subject but you don’t have any idea where they came from. There’s no missing persons alert, and you’re having no success in gleaning from the subject where they live or where they belong.
“Consider the ‘reverse tracking’ method — having a police K-9 track the person back to where they came from via scent,” she explained.
“Do everything you can to ‘get into relationship’ with the individual. Talk about what they’re interested in, what they like to do. If you can get that information up front, you are more likely to get quicker cooperation from them.”
If you see an ASD subject experiencing a meltdown, back up and give them space as long as doing so is tactically sound. Obviously, you can’t back up if an ASD subject poses a tactical threat to yourself or an innocent third party, but generally speaking, an ASD subject will calm down on their own, eventually.
Overall, Hamre explained, law enforcement agencies across the country are doing more — and higher quality — training on responding to subjects with ASD.
“Generally, the requests for training come from departments that have had an incident with someone with ASD that perhaps was challenging or handled poorly, they have a police staff who has a family member with ASD who personally pushes for it, a police staff has attended a NEMRT or CIT training and wants their entire staff to receive the training,” Hamre said.
Hamre lamented that she sees some resistance with a number chiefs or training departments who feel that the online or roll-call training is sufficient, but she said that we can do better.
“While both of those trainings are better than nothing, they leave much to be desired. There is little-to-no room for ‘what if’ questions, question-and-answer time, and no time for sharing real examples. That’s where — I personally feel — the real learning takes place,” Hamre said.
Longtime readers of this space know that I’m a strong advocate for 10-minute training If that’s all you’ve got time and budget for, then that’s going to have to be sufficient for your ASD training, but I’ve also attended several seminars on the subject of police interaction with these people.
“The officers who come out to receive some comprehensive training almost universally are happy they did. The evaluations we get — and some of the personal conversations post training — typically include comments like ‘I wish my entire department could have this training’ or ‘we need to have a refresher course every year on Autism’,” Hamre said.
Keep yourself apprised of the issue, and I would encourage you to consider inviting Hamre and her cadre of trainers visit your PD to conduct their comprehensive training.
Seek quick refreshers on some of the time-tested and proven responses for police officer contacts with ASD subjects — this is where that 10-minute training concept fits in. For example, during ILEETA 2011, I sat down with Susan Hamre for a video interview on the subject of police encounters with ASD persons.
Check out video of my interview with Susan Hamre, talk with your shift about this subject, and stay safe out there.
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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 750 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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