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Autism and Law Enforcement: Greater Awareness and Training Needed

September 20, 2021


Young people on the spectrum and the law enforcement community can, and do, come into contact all the time. The resultant interaction can be beneficial for both groups or it can become problematic. The question is why it would be a problem and how can we change the dynamic to ensure the encounters are positive? The answer lies in understanding the goals and mission of law enforcement as well as the understanding about the autism spectrum community by law enforcement.

Autism and Law Enforcement: Greater Awareness and Training Needed https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-law-enforcement/

While there is certainly more information available today than there was only 10 years ago, the reality is the training programs that offer insight and guidance are still not as prevalent as they could be. Police agencies are overwhelmed with demands for their services. In many places the local police department has become the “go to” destination for anything and everything that goes in in a town or city.

From finding missing kids, to domestic violence, to street crime, to the more mundane calls such as an older resident who can’t get their hot water to come on, law enforcement officers are called on to deal with all of these problems. They are taxed very thin, training dollars are scarce, and police leadership has to make choices about what they train on.

The good news here is that learning about kids on the spectrum and how to serve this community is on the radar and is something that makes it to the agenda sheets of many agencies. What they need to move the ball down the field and increase these programs is parental/guardian involvement.

By contacting the local police leadership and asking for these kinds of programs, it becomes a concern, and concerns often get addressed. A group of parents who are vocal speaking to the police helps a lot. So, get together with other families in your area and set up a meeting with the local police chief to ask what programs they are offering their officers.

Why are autistic children at risk of police confrontation?

A while ago I was talking to another police officer about how we could get more training to our cops about the special needs community. It was during this conversation that this officer told me his son was six years old and on the spectrum. He said he had some concerns that if his son ever encountered the police he feared there might be an unnecessary confrontation because the officer might not understand his son’s behaviors and reactions to the officer’s presence of commands. 

I didn’t understand at first because I didn’t know much about the spectrum and how it affected people. My friend then explained some facts about the autism spectrum and how it manifests itself in different kids. He told me about the different levels of verbalization, stimming, and possible fascination with an officer’s badge, uniform, or other equipment that might cause a child to reach for the badge, not answer questions, and seem evasive or defiant. He explained how that could cause the officer to react inappropriately to the child’s actions.

Once I understood more about how the autism spectrum can affect children, it became clear that a confrontation between an autistic child and an officer was possible due to misinterpretation of the child’s actions. My friend’s concerns were real.

Based on that realization, I ran a training course for my officers during our yearly in-service program on how to recognize kids on the spectrum and how to interact with them appropriately to prevent a negative encounter. The officers were very happy to learn about this because they didn’t want to do the wrong thing if they interacted with a child on the spectrum. As we developed the program, I saw more and more need to keep adding to it, so we covered as many aspects as possible and got as much information to my officers as possible.

What training is available for police officers? 

Currently, there are training programs for officers on autism and, while it is not as widespread as it should be, these programs are increasing year on year. Training programs are sometimes provided by local groups that have connections to the special needs community, parents or professionals with knowledge and skills that they can teach. I also see some sheriffs’ departments, and individual police departments, offering programs. Plus, there are companies like mine that offer training to the law enforcement community.

Magazines such as Autism Parenting Magazine also run conferences or webinars that offer insight and input into what can be done to increase training for local police. I recently hosted a presentation on this topic for the magazine and I was thrilled when a few people who heard my program reached out to me to ask for guidance on getting this type of training to their community. What I told them is what I stated earlier in this blog: get together with other parents and guardians, get a meeting with your police chief, and ask for the training. Most police leaders want to serve their community as best as they can—knowing what the community needs goes a long way when making training choices. I am always available to act as a bridge as well between parents and the local police. I “speak cop” and can add a little push to the request!


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Preparing autistic children for engaging with police officers  

In addition to getting more training to our local officers, we can also prepare our kids on how to interact with the police. After I retired from law enforcement, I became the Director of School Security for a large district in New Jersey, USA. As I learned about the district, I saw there was a population of kids on the spectrum in all of the district schools. They were well cared for by a great staff, but there was not much contact with the local police.

To address this, I asked the chief to send in different officers and arranged a meeting with the kids under the guidance of school experts in a non-confrontational atmosphere. I wanted the officers to get to know the kids and the kids to get to know the officers in this relaxed setting so that, if the officers ever came across the kids or had to interact with them in an emergency, they were all known to each other. I believed this would make it easier for both groups to properly interact. 

I believed it worked. I was told by the teachers that the kids were all interested when the officer visited the schools and the cops made it a point to drop in on the classes when they did security walk-throughs of the buildings.

During these interactions, the officers got to see some of the behaviors the kids displayed, and they got to understand why they did what they did—it was no longer concerning and made future interactions safer for everyone.      

How kids on the spectrum get into problems as they grow-up

I have a close family member on the spectrum. He is a very nice young man, articulate and bright, and very verbal. As he was growing-up from a little boy to a young man his interests changed, as they would for any young person. By the time he hit 14 he was entering the turbulent waters of puberty.

Just like many young people beginning to become adults, he became attracted to other people and he talked about having a girlfriend. We tried to guide him and help him understand the boundaries of relationships, self-control, and appropriate interaction with others—especially as it became personal and intimate.

He seemed to understand this, and we were happy it was an easy discussion and process. What we didn’t count on was outside influences. He went to a specialized school with other young people of different ages. It was a good environment, but we found that among some of the students their interest in each other was going beyond being classmates. Some of the kids had cell phones and had computer access. We were shocked when our innocent young man got involved in taking and sending inappropriate pictures to his classmates. In all, about seven boys and girls were involved. We worked with the school to address this concern and all the parents and guardians were united in our understanding that what the kids did was wrong, but they didn’t understand the potential consequences for their actions.

The police were notified by the school and they investigated, as was proper. We were lucky that the police agencies involved understood about kids on the spectrum and they worked with us to address the situation and prevent future incidents. However, they could have charged the kids with criminal actions. The law does not make exceptions because a young person is on the spectrum—but since the officers had training, we all avoided much bigger problems. It was a lesson learned.

My point here is this, just because our kids are on the spectrum, it doesn’t mean they can’t get themselves into trouble. We never saw burgeoning sexuality as a possible problem for our kids, but it was. It can be a challenge for any young person, so I suggest we consider all the possibilities, even if far fetched, and consider how we can deal with them before they become a problem.

Final words

Your local police officers are good people who genuinely care about those in their communities. They care about our kids. We have to work together to keep everyone safe, happy and healthy. 

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