Special Report: A police officer's introduction to autism

Editor’s Note: According to recent estimates, the prevalence of Autism-related disorders has now dramatically increased to one in 150 children. Because of this, the odds that you’ll encounter an individual with some level of Autism have also skyrocketed. There are crucial things you need to know about the nuances of this disorder in order for you to avert tragedy and legal trouble alike. The report summarized below Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Special Needs Subject Response Guide for Police Officers — is one we strongly encourage you to read.

“As a police officer, you’ve been trained to use a certain police presence and dialog as intervention options. As trained, your body posture, tone of voice, eye contact, and interrogative language serves you well on most contacts. All of these are a form of nonverbal communication. It’s what you rely on initially to get your message across and control a contact. When dealing with subjects with ASD, traditional officer presence may not work — it may even backfire.”

This is just one of the many gripping passages in a comprehensive new report and resource entitled “Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Special Needs Subject Response Guide for Police Officers.” In early July, Police1 received a draft copy — it has now been finalized and is available for download here.

The magnitude of the need for police officers to learn about autism becomes clear in the report’s first paragraph.

“Children, youth, and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are as varied in their interests, personalities, character, temperaments, and communication styles as anyone else. Human behavior is far too complex to pigeon-hole anyone. It is therefore generally not a good idea to stereotype people with ASD. In reality, no two persons behave exactly alike, but what we know about people with ASD is that they tend to display unusual repetitive behaviors and have difficulty with socialization and communication.”

We recently spoke with Gary T. Klugiewicz, one of our most popular contributors, to learn a little about the important work he’s doing to increase awareness about autism among Law Enforcement Officers. Klugie says that he thinks the material covered in this resource is crucial for the safety of officers and the citizens they represent. People with autism and other cognitive or developmental disabilities are less likely to commit a crime than others, he says, but they are more likely than ever before to:

• Live independently without support
• Be out in public alone, without family or care providers
• Work, attend school, use public transportation, and even drive
• Have their access to public places and other freedoms challenged
• Have a medical emergency
• Be harassed and otherwise bullied
• Be a victim of sexual assault and other serious crimes
• Attract the attention of the police

Klugie tells Police1 that this extraordinary report, written by Joel Lashley, who is the father of a son with autism and has more than 20 years experience managing challenging behaviors in the clinical setting, is the result of a collaboration by Lashley (Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin), Emily Levine (Executive Director of the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin), Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr. (Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office), Mike Thiel, CPP (Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Director of Security), Edward A. Flynn (Chief of Police Milwaukee Police Department), Dr. George Thompson (President of the Verbal Judo Institute), and scores of national professionals.

“I was amazed to discover that the experts who know the most about how to respond to persons with autism are not the doctors, nurses, or other healthcare professionals but the family members of these children, teens, young adults, and older adults with autism," Klugiewicz said. “I’ve been working with Joel Lashley for about five years. He is recognized as a true expert in this field based on his personal experience of raising a son with autism, his professional experience, and the research that he has conducted.”

According to the report, people with ASD often won’t understand what others want or need from them — worse, they may not understand that their words or actions can negatively impact others (or themselves). Difficulty with natural social concepts and values is usually what gets them into trouble with others, including the police, the report states.

In the report’s introduction Klugie writes, “In a free society, the police officer is not only an enforcer of the law but also a protector of the people. This is especially true when managing the needs of our most vulnerable citizens, such as children, the elderly, and those with physical, emotional, and cognitive or developmental disabilities, like Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Police officers, corrections officers, and all public safety personnel could benefit from the ability to recognize the characteristics of ASD so that they can effectively manage the special challenges of people with ASD.

“When interacting with people with ASD, it is important to balance the officer’s own safety needs with the safety needs of people. If an officer encounters a person with ASD in trouble, they need training in order to know how to slow down, shift gears, and employ the necessary resources. Doing this assists with efficient and effective management of potentially difficult situations for both the officer and the person in trouble.”

As for why specifically they are a police problem, Klugie says it is best understood this way: “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.”

About half of people with ASD either cannot speak or they have difficulty speaking, the report says. If they are able to verbalize, they might have trouble describing what has happened or why they are acting the way they are. To make things even more challenging, their ability to interpret nonverbal communication is also typically impaired.

Clearly, 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.

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