What I wish the law enforcement community knew about people with autism
Take the opportunity to understand this vulnerable community
By Terrance (Terry) Walsh, BA, M.Ed.
I wish you could see what I see.
As a parent of an adult on the autism spectrum, I want first responders to see what parents like me see.
Before joining the police department, I worked in private schools and moved multiple times. Each move was stressful as a family but earth-shattering for our son. He was uprooted from a place he was comfortable with and a schedule he understood. Within days of moving to a new location, I reached out to the police department with all the details of my son. Most times an officer or trooper came by the house to introduce themself and to meet our son, Liam. This helped tremendously for our son, as well as for the department should they ever get a call to our location. When I left private school to be part of law enforcement I wanted to share my experiences with others.
“Not all hooves are from horses”
Although I have not been on the job for very long, I have noticed times officers rush to get the facts and can miss what is happening directly in front of them.
Young physicians are often taught in medical school that when you hear hooves, think horse not zebra. This means thinking about the most common issues creating a medical problem, not some elaborate condition. However, I would advise all first responders to embrace the adage that “not all hooves are from horses.”
Seeing a person acting differently does not immediately make them a threat or under the influence. An officer should remain on guard but engage in an investigative “interview” to better understand what is happening rather than having the individual fit an already-formed narrative.
That young man shaking his hands (called stimming), pacing, unwilling to make eye contact and talking to himself in a high-pitched voice may be a person with autism. Too often officers get focused on the end result or an assumption in order to go to the next call. When dealing with a person with autism, this paradigm can go awry quickly and the individual can easily be misunderstood and perceived as defiant or worse a threat.
Where do adults with autism go?
Every parent’s fear as they grow older is whether their adult child is safe. This is compounded when that adult has a disability and must rely on others. When my child was in school, I knew he would be safe and have people looking out for him, but as he got older I grew concerned about his safety.
According to the CDC, 1 out of every 44 children in the United States has autism. As these children get older, some may enter group homes, but is local law enforcement aware of the makeup of these group homes?
Much like when I moved, the officers who came by to make contact put my son at ease by demonstrating they want to know more because they care. Most staff members of group homes are truly doing God’s work, but these people are often underpaid with minimal training or oversight. It is too easy for society to forget those living in the group home.
The past two years with COVID forced people to avoid unnecessary contact, what did the people in group homes do? In most cases, they were truly locked down to prevent exposure, which meant no outside contact.
Prone for abuse, at risk for injury
Whether it is a group home or a family setting, do law enforcement officers know what to look for if dispatched to a location with a person with autism? Are they aware that people with autism often perform self-harm as a form of stress release? Autistic people can possess a higher or lower threshold for pain.
An autistic individual might not be able or willing to speak with any stranger. Hopefully, the officer is taking in everything presented rather than getting “tunnel vision” to achieve the end result. Do officers know that drowning is one of the leading causes of death for people with autism? Although autistic individuals seem to absorb everything that goes on around them, they lack the ability to assess the dangers surrounding them, which makes them more vulnerable to unintentional injuries.
If an officer can get frustrated by an individual with ASD within a 20-minute interaction, what is it like for family members and caregivers? Is the situation an officer was called to a domestic situation or a person with ASD struggling to cope? If families with an adult child with ASD are divorced, they may have to parent alone as their child grows older. Did the parent, family member, or caregiver get overwhelmed?
Still, I am learning
Although autism appears to be more widely known, there are still many misconceptions surrounding those with the condition. The media has made a greater effort to illustrate people with autism, but what has been missed is the knowledge that autism is a spectrum disorder and conditions have a wide range. Those with autism do have unique abilities and do not fit into a cookie-cutter pattern. Some are highly gifted with remembering facts or high-end math while some are non-verbal and struggle to communicate with other members of society. Their greatest challenge is comprehending verbal and non-verbal communication cues.
I wish people would accept and embrace this quirkiness and realize this quality is what makes people with autism so unique and enjoyable. Michelangelo was credited for saying the phrase "ancora imparo," which means “Still, I am learning." I’ve learned more from my son and from people like him than I ever learned in school and much of it is how to deal with people. Although Liam is an adult, he possesses a child-like excitement and has become the “Christmas Spirit” in our household. I know I have a lot to learn from others and I want to share those experiences so others will know and learn more.
Learn more about people with autism with these Police1 resources
- 5 tips to guide officers during interactions with autistic persons
- How an Amazon wish list enabled a police department to help people with sensory sensitivity
- How a new simulation course helps officers train to recognize the signs of autism
- Autism awareness: Why it matters for law enforcement
- What I learned: One chief’s experience with a new autism awareness course
- Colo. first responders using app to foster safer encounters with people
About the author
Terrance (Terry) Walsh, BA, M.Ed., worked in private boarding schools for 27 years before transitioning to law enforcement and joining the Rhode Island Capitol Police Department. As a parent of an adult son with Autism, he has tried to inform others through his experiences about those in the community with Special Needs. Terry took his passion for learning into his department by becoming an instructor for the TASER, handcuffing and most recently becoming certified to instruct at the Rhode Island Municipal Academy in Autism Awareness. Terry lives with his wife Kerri, daughter Casey and son Liam. Contact Terrance at Terrance.Walsh@RICP.DPS.RI.GOV.