5 tips to guide officers during interactions with autistic persons

Having the appropriate range of tools and training helps guarantee the best outcome for all parties


The recent tragic shooting of a 13-year-old Utah boy with Asperger’s syndrome highlights the need for law enforcement to be trained in how to respond appropriately to autistic people.

When it comes to law enforcement, autism presents a unique conundrum. In very general terms, autism encompasses a spectrum of behaviors that ultimately affects a person’s ability to communicate effectively, and a primary function of a law enforcement officer is to communicate effectively to restore order during crises.

Being in law enforcement for over 20 years, I can attest that training on this topic was previously non-existent. I wasn’t fully exposed to the autism community until I was assigned as a School Resource Officer (SRO).

The author is pictured here with Jen, who is on the autism spectrum and uses earmuffs to reduce noise overstimulation.
The author is pictured here with Jen, who is on the autism spectrum and uses earmuffs to reduce noise overstimulation. (Pasco Sheriff's Office)

Early on, I responded to a self-contained classroom for students with special needs. The teacher needed assistance with a student who was out of control. My immediate response was to place the student in handcuffs while yelling at him to stop resisting. When his mother arrived at the scene, I apologized for placing him in handcuffs, while explaining it was for everyone’s safety and the only option at the time.

Over the years in my SRO assignment, my tactics evolved from the rapid deployment of restraint devices to creating a more private setting for the individual and taking time to truly assess the situation. Traditional de-escalation techniques work for the majority of situations, but are they always the right approach? Can they, in fact, make the situation worse?

No law enforcement officer wants to shoot a 13-year-old autistic child, and having the appropriate range of tools and training helps guarantee the best outcome for all parties. The following five tips are starting points to keep in mind during all interactions, but particularly as part of a deliberate strategy while engaging with those on the autism spectrum.   

1. BE OBSERVANT

As an instructor to other law enforcement officers, I am often asked how to tell if someone has autism. While the spectrum is broad, there are several characteristics that serve as clues for observant law enforcement personnel.

One of the more common is lack of eye contact, which I have experienced with many individuals, including Jen (a young woman on the spectrum). She explained to me that eye contact makes her feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

It is important for law enforcement to understand eye contact is difficult to achieve and is not an overt sign of defying authority. Other indicators of autism include hand flapping, rocking back and forth, flicking fingers, spinning, or other self-stimulating actions. These types of behaviors can be easily spotted before contact is made.

Some other characteristics are not apparent until you attempt to communicate. The inability to communicate in traditional means is one of the primary signs of autism, and those on the spectrum range from being non-verbal to being very high functioning with advanced vocabularies. 

When officers arrive on scene, they should pay attention to the actions of the people on scene. Obviously, officers want to be aware of safety concerns, but they should also consider if a person’s behaviors actually are a strategy to aid their own de-escalation. A person who uses pacing or walking as a de-escalation strategy may look like a fleeing suspect upon arrival. Being too quick to judge may lead to negative consequences. For example, when an officer tries to tackle a “fleeing suspect” who is, in reality, an autistic individual pacing to de-escalate and who is sensitive to touch. We want to avoid criminalizing mental health, and taking the extra few seconds to assess situations correctly will pay enormous dividends.

2. DON’T OVERREACT

Individuals on the autism spectrum are usually structured, routine-based and can perseverate on a topic in a manner that can often be problematic for law enforcement. When an individual does not respond to an officer’s command to cease an action, it can be misconstrued as resisting an officer without violence.

Redirection is an easy tactic that officers can use to de-escalate the situation, such as discussing a beloved topic of the individual. Sometimes a distractionary topic is easy to identify by a cursory check of the surroundings and using prior information can even expedite resolution. Flagging a person’s name or address with an alert for “autism” into the agency’s CAD system can let officers know ahead of time that an individual they may interact with is on the spectrum. Valuable information can be obtained by asking family and friends on scene what calms down or agitates the autistic person.

One way the Pasco Sheriff’s Office (PSO) gathers this information prior to first contact is through active solicitation of information from the community. The agency used media outlets such as Facebook, local newspapers and activist blogs to generate awareness.

PSO, with permission from Debbaudt Legacy Productions, created an Autism Awareness card. This card is sent to individuals upon request using a PSOCares@pascosheriff.org email address and is designed to be carried by autistic individuals and presented to officers upon contact. It provides tips for officers for improved communication, emergency contact information and information unique to the cardholder. Information that has been provided to PSO for inclusion to CAD includes nicknames the individual prefers to be called, toys or subjects they enjoy, or things that can trigger the person.

Pasco Sheriff's Office Autism Awareness Cards by epraetorian on Scribd

3. BE AWARE OF THE SENSES

I met Jen in 2018 after she had a poor experience with law enforcement. The goal of our interaction was to ensure that any subsequent experiences were positive. I met her at her home and was hesitantly given a tour of her treasured possessions. She has an enviable collection of “Star Wars” memorabilia and LEGO items.

As we spoke, I could see her visibly shrink away from me when sirens could be heard nearby. In subsequent visits in public places, Jen would wear a pair of earmuffs to mute sounds around us. Jen’s sensitivity to sound has enhanced her unique talents as a dancer and video editor. Her ability to express herself in this capacity brings joy to those around her when she performs. Not surprisingly, she often chooses to do so in costume, such as a Stormtrooper replica uniform.

People diagnosed with autism are often hypersensitive to lights and sounds. There are simple things officers can do to minimize overstimulating an autistic person and improve outcomes. Jen’s use of earmuffs is a perfect example, and likely every law enforcement officer carries a set in their vehicle for firearms training.

Reducing distractions such as radio transmissions and other people on scene who may be adding to the auditory overstimulation are small actions that can pay big benefits. These considerations will aid the officer in the ability to de-escalate more effectively.

4. BUILD RAPPORT

Jen’s passion for “Star Wars” and LEGO items is apparent throughout her home. She enjoys talking about them and, more importantly for her, dons costumes depending on her mood and her desire to share her mood with others. Jen’s traumatic incident with law enforcement took a constructive turn this year and has fostered a desire to help officers better understand her disability in the hope of helping others.

Jen volunteers with her local LE agency for its “CIT for SROs” class, sharing her story during the consumer perspective portion.
Jen volunteers with her local LE agency for its “CIT for SROs” class, sharing her story during the consumer perspective portion. (Pasco Sheriff's Office)

Jen is now a volunteer with her local law enforcement agency speaking during Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training classes. She is a part of the consumer perspective segment where she shares her negative (and now positive) interactions with law enforcement and how she works through her disability. Her latest costume is a MOLLE vest with handcuffs, a battle dress uniform, military-style boots and hat.

Building rapport is key to working with individuals regardless of mental illness or disability. Chatting with the cashier at the grocery store or conversing with the nurse at a doctor’s appointment is more than just killing time. It builds a relationship over time that can expand to a friendship if cultivated.

For law enforcement officers, building rapport when interacting with an autistic person may seem difficult to achieve when communication is at the center of cultivating relationships. However, once rapport is established, the rewards are multiplied not only for the initial responding officer but for future officers who will likely respond for assistance. Future law enforcement interactions will build on past influences to increase successes and build long-term relationships.

5. BE PATIENT

Crisis varies from person to person and is experienced by everyone at some point in their lives. When it occurs, many people do not have the coping skills to deal with it and often call 911 to assist. Alternately, it may be a stressed-out caregiver or concerned citizen who calls. For the person in crisis, it is a precarious time in their life and how law enforcement responds can impact them positively or negatively for years to come.

For the law enforcement officer, this incident is just one of 10-15 calls in a shift. It may be routine for the responding officer, but it means the world to the person in crisis. Take the time and “be in the moment.” For patrol, this can be a difficult paradigm shift of thinking. Officers are quick to find a resolution so they can clear the call and move on to the next one. It is important to slow it down and evaluate what is actually happening.

For autistic people, there are a range of behaviors that may assist the person in dealing with their surroundings. This process is called “stimming” and aids the person in calming down. Law enforcement officers could potentially escalate a situation by restricting the person’s ability to perform this coping skill.

The critical question officers must ask is whether the person is harming themselves or another person. If neither is occurring, consider allowing the individual to continue the action. Officers are often criticized for taking action too quickly rather than not acting soon enough. In many cases, once an autistic person can “reset” themselves, they can continue with their day as if nothing occurred. An arrest or involuntary incarceration for a mental health evaluation may be unnecessary and, more likely, counterproductive.

APPLICATION

Taking the extra time on every call for service and employing these simple strategies will pay dividends in community confidence and trust.
Taking the extra time on every call for service and employing these simple strategies will pay dividends in community confidence and trust. (Pasco Sheriff's Office)

Many departments are already working to improve patrol responses to the autistic population to include the use of behavioral health community resources to augment patrol. This is a great opportunity for larger departments or resource-rich communities.

Although the majority of departments across America are small with limited resources, there is unlimited potential to positively impact people by employing a few strategies that require minimal funding and training.

Each of these five tips can be implemented individually or as a whole. Although they are tailored for responding to autistic individuals, their applicability is universal. Every department’s employees should interact and treat those in the community with the respect and dignity we all deserve.

Taking the extra time on every call for service and employing these simple strategies will pay dividends in community confidence and trust. I have seen law enforcement make tremendous progress in autism awareness over the past two decades, and I wish I had known half of what I know now when I handcuffed my first student as an SRO.

If I could go back in time and advise my younger self, I would employ these five techniques on every call, starting the first day on patrol.

NEXT: 3 steps toward understanding autism challenges during traffic stops

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