Why training and educating officers about recognizing the behaviors of autism is critical
If you know one person with autism, that's all you know – one person with autism – the variability in behaviors constantly evolves
By Melissa Littles
As a police officer’s wife and an autism mom, I’m often asked my opinion on how we can best train police officers to handle contact with autistic individuals. With nearly 1 in 68 children diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the chance of an encounter with an officer at some point is extremely high.
Autism covers a broad spectrum with a variation of behaviors not consistent with each case. Typical behaviors (while manifested at different levels) with autism include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Avoiding eye contact
- An inability to verbally communicate effectively
- An inability to process commands or information in a timely manner
- A tendency for “bolting” or retreating. Many on the spectrum suffer from sensory overstimulation and the inability to simply tune out chaos, such as loud noises, sirens, loud voices or commotion. Many on the spectrum will flee the situation in an attempt to regain control of their environment. Bolting is one of the leading causes of accidental death in autism, second only to drowning.
- Flapping, clapping or repetitive pounding of hands
- An inability to remain still
- Self-harming or the harming of others, typically those in close relation to the person on the spectrum, such as a parent, sibling or caretaker
When we consider how these different behaviors might play out during an encounter with a police officer, it’s easy to see how a situation could deteriorate quickly.
As a mother of a child with autism, you might expect me to think the police should be there to help and protect. My child should never be fearful of the police. I’m not that mom. As the wife of a police officer, there are countless scenarios in which I believe that an officer who is unfamiliar with autistic behavior would be justified in using force.
An autistic teen is on the street. According to witnesses he is in possession of a knife and is acting erratically. Police respond. Upon arrival they immediately, and loudly, begin to yell commands at the autistic teen to put down the weapon. It would be very typical behavior for this teen to attempt to flee, due to the noise and action of the officers. It could also be typical for the teen to try to approach the officers as he’s not able to process that they are on scene because of his own behavior. He may be recalling information from his parents that officers are there to help, so he may gravitate towards them, or their police unit.
Eliminate the weapon from this scenario and imagine officers are simply attempting to detain the teen until they assess the situation. Many individuals with autism cannot handle personal touch, much less being restrained. Someone with autism could easily be viewed as resisting officers should they try to place him or her in cuffs. The results of the perceived actions of the teen in this particular scenario could go sideways in so many different ways.
Regardless if the signs of autism are recognized or not, even an officer with training in dealing with those on the spectrum cannot risk personal injury or a danger posed to innocents. So whose responsibility is it? And does training even work in most situations?
Although there are more resources and training available to departments and agencies, and there is an increase in training officers on how to deal with the disabled, as a mother of a child with autism, I can easily see that this training would only be effective only in certain situations. Sadly, it may not be very effective when dealing with the average everyday encounter.
Patrol officers need to be educated and trained on the behaviors of autism, as it can be highly effective when an autistic child or adult bolts and is missing. How to approach someone on the spectrum, when you are trying to talk them back to you, is critical.
It is equally important for all first responders to have some knowledge of the typical behaviors of those on the spectrum. A paramedic trying to assist an autistic subject could find themselves on the receiving end of an extremely combative person. A firefighter could easily find themselves chasing an autistic person deeper into a fire due to bolting. The problem is that there is no absolute in training first responders on autism simply because of the nature of autism. The spectrum is broad and full of variables that change from person to person. You know one person with autism, and that's all you know – one person with autism.
As much as I try to teach my child how to handle himself in public, it is hard as an autism parent to say I believe it will help. It sounds good in theory, especially with my child being high functioning; however, I know how my child reacts under tense situations and I seriously doubt that my teaching would be a fail-safe during a highly volatile situation. He simply doesn’t have the ability to process information timely. All I can do is reinforce, repeat, pray and hope nothing ever happens.
As hard as it is to say – living on both sides of this subject – should my husband encounter someone on the spectrum who poses a credible threat in his mind, I would expect him to protect himself and innocents and come home safe. I say that, even considering my husband is a parent of a child on the spectrum and is very accustomed to autistic behavior. He is a CIT/hostage negotiator and has training on mental health. However, when faced with a critical situation, he is an officer and only he can assess that particular situation and act accordingly to remain safe and protect the public.
Many departments are now being more proactive in training their officers and responders how to interact and react to those with mental, physical and developmental disabilities. Many others do not see a reason to justify the use of resources to do so. As a mother of a child with autism, as much as I wish there were training which would work under all circumstances, I know that’s not realistic. But, I think even knowing the core and most common behaviors of those on the spectrum can be helpful to all first responders.
As an autism mom, I still believe the responsibility – as exhausting as it may be for my lifetime – will always be in my hands and in the hands of my husband, and those trained caretakers and teachers in whom we entrust our son’s care. Unfortunately, even the best of parents and care providers are not perfect and there will always be that chance of something happening. Focusing on prevention of negative scenarios is, in my opinion, one of my most important tasks as a parent.