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More kids with autism means more police contacts with ASD subjects

You will encounter an ASD subject at some point — likely more than once — and those individuals will have a different response to police than “the usual suspects”

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can cause significant social, emotional, communication and behavioral challenges. The PoliceOne Academy features a one-hour course on understanding ASD, as well as videos on LE response to persons in the autism spectrum. Visit PoliceOne Academy to learn more and for an online demo.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regularly updates statistics on the number of people believed to be affected in some way by autism — to be an Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) subject — and the numbers keep increasing. The condition is now believed to affect one in 59 school-age children — up from one in 68 in 2014 and one in 88 just two years earlier.

“That means virtually every grade in every elementary school has at least one child with autism — a seemingly astonishing rise for a condition that was nearly unheard of a generation ago,” USA Today said in its 2014 reporting on the increase.

We know from prior discussions on the topic that as the numbers of ASD subjects go up, the numbers of police interactions with them will inevitably go up as well. The numbers from the CDC offer an excellent opportunity for police officers and trainers to review some of the basics and explore some of the latest information to become available on the topic.

The basics of autism spectrum disorder

First, we know that ASD individuals are highly likely to be the victims of all manner of criminal activity — from bullying to robbery to sexual assault. Further, ASD subjects often have psychological problems, such as depression and self-destructive behaviors, which can attract the attention of law enforcement. Finally, ASD subjects are typically unafraid of the dangers associated with water, strangers, heights, other hazards, and can consequently have medical emergencies necessitating a public safety response.

You will encounter an ASD subject at some point — likely more than once — and those individuals will have a different response to police than “the usual suspects.” Remember that ASD subjects may react unpredictably to outside stimuli such as visual and audible queues, as well as physical human contact. Lights, sirens, a badge and a gun — even an officer’s command presence — are very different for an ASD person than someone considered to be “neurotypical.”

Susan Hamre, director of the Giant Steps Autism Training Center in Lisle (Ill.), is an expert on ASD and someone with whom I regularly consult for updated information on this topic.

Hamre said that while there aren’t necessarily any “new tactics” to learn since I last wrote about the issue, there are some concepts she’s been talking about in her training programs which merit our attention today.

If you’re out looking for an ASD subject who has gone missing, and have no other information to go on, Hamre suggests one of your first stops should be the water in your AOR. Many ASD subjects are magnetically attracted to bodies of water, and far too many ASD subjects have tragically perished in lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams.

If you have access to a parent or caregiver, you may consider asking them questions such as:

  • What are this individual’s ‘triggers’?
  • What are their sensory needs/challenges?
  • What interests them? Are they all about Spiderman, trains, keys, the color yellow, Star Wars, or something else?
  • What type of communication — pictures, spoken words, written words — works best with them?
  • Where are they likely to go?
  • Where had they recently been — McDonald’s, a grandparent’s home, a movie theater — and may be attempting to return?

Along with these questions, you’ll obviously get typical description of what they were wearing and any outstanding physical characteristics.

Hamre shared a hypothetical scenario in which you’ve found an ASD subject but you don’t have any idea where they came from. There’s no missing persons alert, and you’re having no success in gleaning from the subject where they live or where they belong.

“Consider the ‘reverse tracking’ method — having a police K-9 track the person back to where they came from via scent,” she explained.

“Do everything you can to ‘get into relationship’ with the individual. Talk about what they’re interested in, what they like to do. If you can get that information up front, you are more likely to get quicker cooperation from them.”

If you see an ASD subject experiencing a meltdown, back up and give them space as long as doing so is tactically sound. Obviously, you can’t back up if an ASD subject poses a tactical threat to yourself or an innocent third party, but generally speaking, an ASD subject will calm down on their own, eventually.

training on responding to subjects with asd

Overall, Hamre explained, law enforcement agencies across the country are doing more — and higher quality — training on responding to subjects with ASD.

“Generally, the requests for training come from departments that have had an incident with someone with ASD that perhaps was challenging or handled poorly, they have a police staff who has a family member with ASD who personally pushes for it, a police staff has attended a NEMRT or CIT training and wants their entire staff to receive the training,” Hamre said.

Hamre lamented that she sees some resistance with a number of chiefs or training departments who feel that the online or roll-call training is sufficient, but she said that we can do better.

“While both of those trainings are better than nothing, they leave much to be desired. There is little-to-no room for ‘what if’ questions, question-and-answer time, and no time for sharing real examples. That’s where — I personally feel — the real learning takes place,” Hamre said.

I’m a strong advocate for 10-minute training If that’s all you’ve got time and budget for, then that’s going to have to be sufficient for your ASD training.

“The officers who come out to receive some comprehensive training almost universally are happy they did. The evaluations we get — and some of the personal conversations post training — typically include comments like ‘I wish my entire department could have this training’ or ‘we need to have a refresher course every year on Autism’,” Hamre said.

Plan for future training on ASD

Keep yourself apprised of the issue, and I would encourage you to consider inviting Hamre and her cadre of trainers visit your PD to conduct their comprehensive training.

Seek quick refreshers on some of the time-tested and proven responses for police officer contacts with ASD subjects — this is where that 10-minute training concept fits in. For example, during ILEETA 2011, I sat down with Susan Hamre for a video interview on the subject of police encounters with ASD persons.

Police1 has posted news of how Green Bay PD continues to review that brief discussion (and others like it from our Police1 Academy offering) in their roll call training.

Check out my interview with Susan Hamre, talk with your shift about this subject, and stay safe out there.

This article, originally published April 2, 2014, has been updated with current information

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.