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Police Officers and Kids on the Spectrum

A veteran police officer shares an on-duty interaction with an autistic teen that inspired lifelong efforts to bridge special needs knowledge gaps in law enforcement.

Police Officers and Kids on the Spectrum

Many years ago, when I was a new police officer, I was sent to the home of a woman who was having trouble with her 16-year-old son. That was all the information I received from dispatch. This was a normal type of a call; we often found ourselves going to people’s homes when their children were refusing to go to school or acting up in other ways. It’s part of what cops do in most communities in America and falls under the “Community Caretaking” role.

I arrived at the house and knocked on the door. The woman was very nice, but obviously upset. She said her son was upstairs in his room and refusing to eat his lunch or come down to go outside. While we respond to calls from parents a lot, this call seemed very odd because the conflict seemed to be very benign.

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I said: “Okay, let’s go talk to him.”

The mom and I went up to a bedroom and went in. Once inside I saw a very tall and very large 16-year-old man standing in the corner. He had to be at least six feet tall and 240 pounds. He saw me and started smiling, I smiled back and said: “Mom says you don’t want to eat or go outside today. What’s going on?”

The young man tensed up and stopped smiling. It was at this point I realized there was something more to this young man than just defiance, but I had no idea what it was.

His mom was behind me telling her son the police were here to make sure he did what he was supposed to do. I was confused and didn’t recognize the signs of autism; I had not been trained on what to look for or how to interact with people on the spectrum.

I was not sure how to proceed, but I knew something was off about the young man. I spoke to him gently and asked if he wanted me to eat lunch with him, but he didn’t answer. He was non-verbal, but I had no idea that was part of a condition. I spent the next three or four minutes trying to convince him to go downstairs and do what his mom asked to no avail. Instead of responding to my request he started twisting and flapping his arms. At the time I didn’t know this was “stimming,” or self-comforting, and part of his autism. His face looked like he was going to cry but no tears came. I turned to talk to his mom when he ran at me from behind and knocked me to the floor, then began choking me. Like I said, he was a very large guy and I was fighting for my life at that point—he caught me off guard and had the advantage of size and strength.

As I lay on the ground trying to get him off without hurting him his mom was screaming at him to get up, but he just got more upset. I felt I was going to have to use very severe force to stop him. At that moment, his mother hit him with a lamp from a desk in the room. He stopped choking me, got up, and ran down the stairs, now crying very hard.

I was in shock trying to put all of this into perspective, my neck hurt and I knew I had to go after him. I got up and radioed Headquarters to send me additional officers, figuring we would have to restrain this young man. I went down the stairs and found him sitting at the kitchen table eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

He saw me and smiled like nothing had happened, so now I was really confused. In our town we had a mobile mental health crisis team.They responded to the call and a counselor talked to me, the mom, and the young man. When we were done the counselor told me about the young man’s autism and wanted to know if I was going to arrest him for the assault. I asked the counselor what he thought, and he said he didn’t think a criminal arrest was the best idea since the young man didn’t realize what he had done was illegal, so I agreed not to make an arrest. Instead, the counselor planned to provide additional services to the mom and her son.

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That event was a watershed moment in my career and my life. In New Jersey (NJ), in the late 1980s, autism was not something most people understood, and police officers received very little training on interacting with people on the spectrum. There have been reports of officers injuring or killing people on the spectrum because they didn’t understand the condition or how to properly deal with situations like mine. 

That encounter could have gone very badly for everyone. I knew we had to get someone to teach us how to safely and respectfully perform this interaction so we could be a positive force for the kids and families of these special needs communities.

Since then I have tried to help police departments and the parents of our kids set up outreach and contact so when there is an interaction between the two groups it goes smoothly.

Here’s what I suggest:

  • Police agencies should ensure their officers are properly trained on understanding the signs of autism and how to interact with people on the spectrum as well as with people with other mental conditions
  • Police agencies should create an outreach to the community so families with kids on the spectrum can get to know the officers in a controlled environment before they have to respond to a home for a call for service
  • Parents should take the initiative to reach out to the police chief or sheriff in their community and set up a meeting so they can get to know the police leadership and the police can get to know the families
  • A registry should be set up so if a call for service is at a home of a special needs family, the officers will know before they get there and can interact appropriately. These kinds of registries can be done easily with computer aided dispatch systems (CAD Systems) and when a location is entered for the call, it can be flagged with information for the officers
  • Police agencies should encourage their officers to get to know the kids before they have to interact in a law enforcement capacity. As each child is different, so too can the meetings be different. Officers could visit the classroom or stop by the house and wave or talk with the children in a non-threatening environment so the kids get to see the officers in a benign way and become familiar with them
  • Police agencies should encourage police department visits for kids who are open to the idea

These suggestions are just the start of a dialogue between our police officers and our special needs families. Developing a bridge between these two groups in a way that fosters understanding and creates a safe and friendly relationship can go a long way to providing the service every resident needs and can help our families feel comfortable when they interact with the police.

I once spoke to a police officer whose son is on the spectrum. He said he and many parents fear potential danger when their autistic children have to interact with an officer who doesn’t understand and may misinterpret their children’s actions as dangerous or aggressive. This can result in an officer using force; even deadly force, when it could have been avoided had the officers been properly trained and the families knew their local police.  

This is my goal: to help create that bridge between my brother and sister officers and the kids and families we serve. Make the call today to your local police and ask if they have a program like I described. If not, ask them to start one. We all know we have to be our own advocates. Take this article with you and if I can do anything to help feel free to reach out to me.

This article was featured in Issue 118 – Reframing Education in the New Normal

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