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Police and autism: New stats may forecast more contact with ASD subjects

Newly-released statistics from the CDC offer an ideal moment to remind ourselves of the sensitivity of police contacts with subjects with autism spectrum disorders

New estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released late last week indicate a dramatic increase in the number of children in the United States now diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. For surveillance year 2008, the overall estimated prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) among the CDC’s 14 Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network sites was 11.3 per 1,000 (one in 88) children aged eight years old. That bears repeating. One in 88 kids.

The CDC had previously estimated ASDs being observed in one in 110 children, based on surveillance year 2006 (in which there were just 11 ADDM sites). The latest numbers from CDC further state that ASDs are reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, but are almost five times more common among boys (one in 54) than among girls (one in 252).

Before going any further into today’s exploration of the topic, let’s refresh ourselves on the basics of ASD persons. “ASDs are a group of developmental disabilities characterized by impairments in social interaction and communication and by restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior,” the CDC said in its report last week. “The complex nature of these disorders, coupled with a lack of biologic markers for diagnosis and changes in clinical definitions over time, creates challenges in monitoring the prevalence of ASDs.”

Issues for Cops
Given the new numbers from CDC, if you have 90 contacts in any given period of time (let’s say a week of work), at least one of those contacts could potentially involve someone on the spectrum. That’s potentially 50+ ASD contacts a year. That’s a staggering statistic to get our heads around — but let’s try, nonetheless.

For starters, it’s vital to know that people on the autism spectrum often have psychological problems, such as depression and self-destructive behaviors, which can attract the attention of law enforcement. Furthermore, ASD individuals are highly likely to be the victims of all manner of criminal activity — from bullying to robbery to sexual assault. Finally, the dangers associated with water, strangers, heights, and all manner of other hazards can potentially have zero significance for an individual on the spectrum.

Due in part to the passion I have for this sensitive subject, I’ve become friends with Susan Hamre, an expert on autism spectrum disorders and the director of the Autism Training Center in Lisle, Illinois. During the past several years in which I’ve been researching issues related to “people on the spectrum,” I’ve repeatedly turned to Susan for answers to a variety of questions.

After the CDC report was released last week, my question to Hamre was two-fold: “Do you think these new numbers might forecast an increase in the number of contacts ASD subjects will have with law enforcers? And if so, what should police officers have in their minds when they think they might be dealing with an ASD individual?”

“I believe that there is a high probability that all walks of life will have an increased probability of coming in contact with individuals on the Autism Spectrum,” Hamre explained. “This would most definitely include first responders. It behooves everyone in the public sector to become more knowledgeable, sensitive, and compassionate with this population as the numbers are continuing to rise. The impact is significant. I am receiving calls to train not only first responders now but also librarians, entertainment and sports venues, medical clinics, and others.”

Hamre said also that police officers should become familiar with the possible symptoms of autism, so they are better able to make a quick assessment of the challenges of the individual with whom they may be encountering.

“Police officers should learn ‘tricks of the trade’ — if you will — as to how to best communicate with people on the Autism Spectrum and perhaps most critically, to be able to consider an encounter to be a medical call versus a criminal call, at least until the particulars of any incident can be accurately ironed out. Way too many unfortunate situations are occurring with police officers and people on the Autism Spectrum that could easily be avoided with some basic training,” Hamre concluded.

Sometimes you’ll be forewarned by the 911 call taker / dispatcher that you are going to a disturbance call involving a subject with ASD, but we all know that such intel is not necessarily always available. Sometimes you will walk into a call with no forewarning whatsoever.

When I first wrote about this topic back in 2009, I quoted liberally from an excellent report entitled, “Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Special Needs Subject Response Guide for Police Officers” and I will do so again here.

“Often parents or care providers will greet you at the door and tip you off,” that report said. “If you know this, it’s important to ask loved ones and care providers how your subject communicates and how to proceed. Usually they will give you information that is helpful. That being said, if you can recognize people that might have ASD in the absence of reliable information, you’ll be all the more skillful at managing them. By learning these skills you’ll be better equipped to handle all your difficult contacts, whether they have ASD or not.”

More Work Ahead
“ASDs continue to be an important public health concern,” the CDC concluded. “The findings provided in this report confirm that prevalence estimates of ASD continue to increase in the majority of ADDM Network communities, and ongoing public health surveillance is needed to quantify and understand these changes over time. ...CDC also is engaged with other federal, state, and private partners in a coordinated response to identify risk factors for ASDs and meet the needs of persons with ASDs and their families.”

While it remains unclear whether or not the reported CDC numbers are the result of higher awareness of ASD, more refined diagnosis practices, or real increases in Autism Spectrum Disorders among the population, the relevance for law enforcement is clear. Police officers should be periodically reminded of the myriad issues which can stem from LE contact with ASD subjects.

My good friend Gary Klugiewicz once told me — and I’ve never forgotten it — that “persons with brain-based disorders are more likely to have run-ins with the police than others, but they are far less likely to commit a crime. When they get arrested or when an encounter becomes violent between an officer and a subject with autism or other brain based disorder, it’s often because neither party knew how to communicate with the other.”

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating every time we discuss the subject of police interactions with people on the Autism Spectrum: When it comes to interacting with people with ASD, the onus of responsibility falls upon the Sheepdogs to learn to speak and act in a way that the Sheep can understand. At the very least, the Sheepdogs must understand the Sheep, because the opposite is almost never going to be the case.

During ILEETA last year, I sat down with Susan Hamre for a video interview on the subject of police encounters with ASD persons. Please take a few moments to review our brief discussion.

As always, my brothers and sisters, stay safe out there.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.