3 steps toward understanding autism challenges during traffic stops
As the number of citizens diagnosed with high-functioning autism increases, LE interaction with these individuals is more likely
By Jennifer Allen
There is a greatly feared scenario among families who have a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or Asperger’s syndrome. It goes like this: A young man diagnosed with high-functioning autism is pulled over for speeding. As the trooper approaches the vehicle the young man’s anxieties kick in. Since his disability is not apparent, the officer notices the man fidgeting and deduces shiftiness or guilt, then proceeds to suspect something is wrong. When he questions the young man’s behavior by asking if something is wrong, the autistic mind takes the statement literally and the young man begins to tell the officer, “Yes, something is wrong. You pulled me over and I’m supposed to be at work in 10 minutes!” The officer mistakes this truth as flippant behavior and proceeds accordingly. The situation escalates as the misinterpretation is misconstrued for defiance.
As the number of citizens diagnosed with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome continues to increase, here are three considerations for police when encountering a person with autism during a traffic stop.
1. The autistic brain is wired differently, which may impact behavior during a traffic stop
Autistic brains are wired differently from the brains of neurotypical individuals. Too many tight connections in frontal-lobe circuits and too few long-distance links between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain often cause some of the language, social problems and repetitive behavior seen in autism spectrum disorders.
A person with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome may drive and be a good driver at that. Their ability for adherence to structure and rules makes for excellent driving skills. However, due to behavioral challenges, communication breakdowns may occur during a traffic stop. Here are some aspects of how the autistic brain works that officers may notice in a pull-over scenario:
Motor control issues:
- Fine and gross motor skills are impacted, which affects the ability to multitask, such as reaching for a driver’s license, writing skills when signing a ticket and talking, and clumsiness when walking.
- Impact on speech pattern where the individual may exhibit slow or quirky language.
- Slower to respond and may freeze when asked many questions.
Social interaction issues:
- May appear disrespectful with no social graces or skills.
- May be unable to make eye contact as it is painful to concentrate when looking eye to eye.
- Inability to comprehend sarcasm, innuendos or humor and takes things literally. If you asked, “Where’s the fire?” they would be looking for an actual fire.
- Bright flashing lights and loud sounds are often painful and/or distractible, cause them to pause to respond.
- Shiny badges and flashlights can be a painful distraction.
- Touch sensitivities means holding their arm or grabbing abruptly causes pain.
- Smells such as cologne/perfume or strong tobacco may cause sensory overload and they shut down.
2. Autism is not an aggressive mental disorder
Most law enforcement training on mental disorders that is required on an annual basis places autism with aggressive disorders such as comorbid psychopathology, bi-polar, schizophrenia and other comorbidities.
A recent study by Aspergers101, UT Health Science Center in San Antonio and Texas DPS illustrated the need for better LE understanding of autism. Researchers assessed state troopers’ knowledge and attitudes about ASD behaviors, ASD stress reactions and potential for violence of ASD individuals prior to and immediately following a two-hour workshop. The workshop included video clips from Temple Grandin and other experts discussing ASD behavior, stress reactions and application to traffic stop behavior. A teenager with ASD also shared his experiences with driving.
After administering pre- and post-tests to three classes of Texas trooper recruits, the data was calculated and presented at the Texas Psychological Association Conference in Austin, Texas, proving training of law enforcement officers on ASD is both needed and overwhelmingly effective.
Knowing that autism is not an aggressive mental disorder, here are some of the traits of autism that may appear during a traffic stop that could be misconstrued as potentially aggressive:
- Lack of eye contact or too much eye contact.
- No expression and/or seemingly bland behavior.
- Unusual speaking patterns including direct (sometimes curt) short answers.
- Physical display of coping mechanisms (from stress) such as repetitive body movements, crying, holding ears, yelling, singing or fetal position.
3. Effective communication with a driver with autism requires specific skills
If you suspect you pulled over an individual with autism:
- Be factual. Tell them why you pulled them over. Don’t ask them.
- Allow time for them to respond (approximately 20 seconds per question).
- Reassure them they are not going to jail as this is the first thing they picture when pulled over.
- Talk in medium-level tones as loud, sudden sounds can scare and cause a painful delay in response.
- State, step by step, what your intentions are and what you expect from them during the stop. Never assume they know what is expected of them.
- Do not take a lack of eye contact, the changing of subjects, or answers that are vague, evasive, or blunt as evidence of guilt.
- Let them know when the interaction is over, and they are free to drive off.
I hope these tips are useful for officers when interacting with a person diagnosed with autism. While a person’s face will not denote the brain’s unique wiring, once you engage in conversation, the difference will become quickly apparent.
About the author
Jennifer Allen is the founder and CEO of Aspergers101. Jennifer and her son, Samuel Allen, are leading an initiative in Texas that notifies and educates both law enforcement and the public on the new Texas DL Restriction Code “Communication Impediment with a Peace Officer.” A new bill, the Samuel Allen Law, currently being introduced during the Texas Legislative Session, would allow a person with a communication impediment the option for disclosure when registering their vehicle through the Texas DMV. This would place the diagnosis privately in the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunication System (TLETS) alerting the officer prior to approaching the vehicle in a pull-over scenario. Read more about the “Driving with Autism” Texas initiative or contact Jennifer Allen for law enforcement training at https://aspergers101.com/drivingwithautism/.