In order to interact effectively with autistic individuals, police officers must be trained in recognizing the signs of autism and how to appropriately converse with someone on the spectrum. People with autism have behavior and communication challenges that need to be addressed effectively.
When dealing with autistic individuals, police officers should strive to keep the situation calm, reduce excessive stimulation, provide a clear explanation of the situation, and allow extra time for the individual to respond.
If police officers can adjust their standard approach to meet the communication needs of someone with autism, the situation is likely to remain calm, the autistic individual will have less anxiety, and the experience has a better chance of being positive and productive for everyone involved.
Interacting With Autistic Individuals
People with autism present with a variety of behavioral and communication symptoms that can make social interactions challenging. Autistic individuals need to be approached with special care because they often misinterpret social signals and have difficulty interacting with others. Social situations can be challenging, especially unexpected and stressful ones.
Autistic individuals can struggle to respond appropriately to others and understand what is expected of them. They may also lack confidence to communicate effectively, especially if they have had negative experiences in the past.
Frequently, people with autism exhibit communication challenges, such as:
- Difficulty paying attention to what is being said.
- Trouble processing what people say to them.
- Confusion with open-ended questions.
- Not asking for help.
- Taking things literally.
- Striking out physically if they do not like what is being asked of them.
- Negative reactions to the word no.
- Limitations with nonverbal communication.
- Echolalia, or repeating what is being said to them.
While the above factors make communicating with someone who has autism difficult, it is not impossible. By gaining an understanding of challenges many autistic individuals face, police and other individuals can learn effective strategies for successfully interacting with autistic individuals.
What Police Should Do
With about 1 in 54 children in the United States currently diagnosed with autism, there is a high likelihood that police officers will come into contact with people on the spectrum throughout their careers. For that reason, it is important for police officers to be educated on the range of behaviors that someone with autism may exhibit.
There are practical steps police officers can take to correctly identify someone with autism and reduce misunderstandings. These steps include:
- Make an effort to gain an understanding of autism.
- Learn how to read cues from people with autism.
- Participate in training courses on how to work with this demographic.
It can be difficult to recognize that someone has autism just by looking at them or even by speaking with them. Someone with autism may speak a lot but comprehend little, or they may not speak at all but still understand the situation well. Typical characteristics of autistic individuals, such as not making eye contact or smiling, can also be misinterpreted by police as indicating a dangerous person, when really the individual just has autism and struggles with typical social interactions and behavior.
Education on typical characteristics of autism, as well as how autistic individuals are likely to respond to stressful situations, can help to make interactions between police officers and people with autism positive experiences for everyone involved.
Types of Autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of behavioral and communication symptoms. Some people with ASD are considered to be high-functioning, and you may not be able to tell they have autism by interacting with them. People on the opposite end of the spectrum exhibit severe behavior and communication challenges that make it impossible to live independently.
Types of autism, which are based on severity level, are as follows:
- Level 1, requiring support: Individuals with Level 1 ASD are often able to live independently, with supports in place. They exhibit some deficits in social communication that can make it difficult to initiate social interactions and appropriately respond to social cues. Challenging behaviors include inflexibility, difficulty with transitions, and problems with organization and planning.
- Level 2, requiring substantial support: Individuals with Level 2 autism have noticeable deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication skills as well as impaired social skills, even with supports in place. Challenging behaviors include inflexibility, difficulty coping with change, restricted or repetitive behaviors, and distress and/or difficulty changing their attention or action.
- Level 3, requiring very substantial support: Someone with Level 3 ASD exhibits severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication, and may be entirely nonverbal. They initiate limited social interactions and responses to others, and they only respond to very direct social approaches. Challenging behaviors include inflexible behavior, extreme difficulty with change, great distress and difficulty changing focus or actions, and restricted or repetitive behaviors that interfere with all aspects of functioning.
It is important to use special care when interacting with individuals with autism, especially those with severe autism. Individuals with severe autism have extreme difficulties with understanding communication and expressing themselves. They may also exhibit a flight response to stressful situations and put themselves and others in great danger in an attempt to flee the distressing situation.
Do’s & Don’ts for Police Officers
Interacting with individuals with developmental disabilities can be challenging. It can be tough to know what you should and should not try to do.
To help police officers and other officials gain a better understanding of appropriate techniques to use when interacting with autistic individuals, the National Autistic Society of the UK produced an autism guide for police officers.
In addition to recognizing the signs that you may be dealing with an autistic person, police officers should do the following:
- Keep the situation calm.
- Know that your language may be confusing to the person.
- Turn off any sirens or flashing lights.
- Be as noninvasive as possible when checking for injuries.
- Clearly explain the situation using plain language.
- Use visual supports/aids to explain the situation.
- Use clear, concise, and simple language.
- Give the person extra time to process and respond to what is being said.
- Use direct, clear questions focused on one thing at a time.
Police officers should avoid certain things when interacting with autistic individuals.
- Try not to be offended by the individual’s response or odd behavior.
- Do not attempt to stop the individual’s repetitive or odd behaviors.
- Do not remove the person’s security object if they have one for comfort.
- Avoid touching the person or using handcuffs, if possible.
- Try to avoid raising your voice.
- Avoid sarcasm or figurative speech.
- Do not expect an immediate response to questions.
- Do not misinterpret the individual’s lack of eye contact as suspicious.
Interacting with individuals with developmental disabilities is complicated and presents with challenges many police officers are unfamiliar with. By increasing your personal tool kit of techniques for working with autistic individuals, you will be better prepared to keep the situation calm. This can help to produce a full understanding of events that transpired.
How Autistic Individuals Should Interact With Police
Although awareness and understanding of autism spectrum disorder have increased significantly in the United States, many people still do not have a clear understanding of the condition and how it impacts communication. For this reason, people with autism must also be prepared to interact safely and effectively with police officers.
Autism safety expert, Dennis Debbaudt, explains that most law enforcement officials and first responders receive little to no training in how to effectively work with individuals on the autism spectrum when they encounter them out in the field. To help police officers and other officials understand you have autism and how it will likely impact your interaction, Mr. Debbaudt offers the following tips:
- Provide a handout card. Make a card you can hand out to officers and other people when you unexpectedly come into contact with them. The card should briefly provide information about autism and how it impacts your behavior and communication. Have multiple copies of the card, and remember it is easily replaced.
- Wear a medical alert bracelet. If unexpected exchanges make it difficult for you to communicate verbally, a medical alert bracelet can provide the information to officers for you instead. It can also tell them that you have an additional handout card for them to read.
- Disclose your diagnosis. It is up to you whether you want to tell an officer about your diagnosis or not. However, if officers have more information, it allows them to make more well-informed decisions. Practice disclosing your diagnosis with people you trust so you are comfortable and have a plan for how to use your handout card.
In addition to effectively disclosing your diagnosis and providing officers with information about your communication abilities, there are other points to consider when you find yourself in an unexpected situation with police. It is important to remember the following:
- Do not run from the officers.
- Do not make abrupt movements or reach for anything.
- Try to stay calm.
If you are the victim of a crime or have something to report to the police, you can ask the police if you can contact an advocate, family member, or friend to help you through the process. Always have emergency contact information for people who understand your condition and can help you through difficult situations.
Mr. Debbaudt’s website provides a wide range of resources on autism training for law enforcement, including downloadable resources, training videos, and information on legal assistance.
The goal of increasing awareness among police officers about how autistic individuals are likely to respond to a situation with law enforcement is to ensure the safety of all parties involved.
Autistic individuals often experience stress and anxiety around unfamiliar and unexpected situations. The more officers are able to do to keep the individual calm and clear about what is happening, the better the experience is likely to be for the individual.
Likewise, educating autistic individuals on how to appropriately interact with police officers, and practicing the interactions with handout cards ahead of time, can greatly improve outcomes for everyone.
Autism: A Guide for Police Officers and Staff. (2017). The National Autistic Society.
Autism Diagnosis Criteria: DSM-5. Autism Speaks.
Communicating. (May 2017). National Autistic Society.
Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder. (March 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Interacting With Law Enforcement. Autism Speaks.
What Happens When People With Autism Interact With Police. (June 2017). Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.