Officers are generally trained to follow standard procedures. Most are not aware how autism may manifest differently than might be expected. Many officers could avoid making serious mistakes with a little bit of knowledge.
Those who live each day on the spectrum don’t always respond well to standard procedures surrounding interaction, so communication with a police officer could become exasperating and get way out of control for both the person with autism and the officer.
How can we help our first responders avoid mistakes?
Well, first we can help by defining autism for them.
The Autism Society of America defines autism in this way: autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability. Signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.
It is important to provide our officers with some additional information as well. Most people want to know the cause and it is important to tell them that at this time, there is no known single cause for autism spectrum disorder, though it is generally accepted to be caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. We need to tell them researchers are investigating a number of theories, including the links among heredity, genetics, and medical problems.
Officers need to know some of the behaviors associated with autism include delayed learning of language, difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation, difficulty with executive functioning (which relates to reasoning and planning), narrow, intense interests, poor motor skills, and sensory sensitivities.
What tips can help our officers?
Autism can be hard to detect and may look very strange or perhaps threatening. Someone on the spectrum can appear typical-looking and so responses may seem fake.
It is important to share with officers some of the differences they may see when coming in contact with someone with autism.
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A person with autism may engage in hand flapping, finger moving, head tapping, head and body rocking, spinning, and making noises. He/She may also have an attachment to objects.
A person may hit his/her head against the wall or floor, gouge his/her own eyes, bite himself/herself, pull his/her own hair out, or pick at sores till they bleed.
Outbursts of Aggression
A person may hit, bite, push, and/or kick others.
Varied sensitivities to touch, smell, auditory, visual stimulation
A person may not feel pain or a full bladder. He/She may avoid hugs, handshakes, cuddling, and eye contact or cover his/her ears to sounds and not respond and seem deaf.
Lack of safety understanding
A person may run out into the street, walk away from his/her family in a public area, elope into unsafe areas, go with a stranger, and not understand fire, heat, or sharp object consequences. He/She may:
- Lack perspective taking (he/she think everyone thinks like he/she does)
- Lack understanding of social rules (tones of voice, sitting too close or standing too close, interrupting others, sharing with others, cooperating with others, etc.)
- Have an extreme range of emotions: crying to laughing or showing extreme distress
- May be distracted and hyperactive
- May have a fear of animals (loud barking, movement)
Possible police calls about those with autism:
- Wandering out alone
- Darting into traffic
- Dressed inappropriately in public
- Displaying self-injurious behaviors
- Peering into windows
- Turning water faucets on and off
- Aggression towards another
- Parent restraining a child in public for safety reasons
- PICA (eating inappropriate objects such as rocks, mud, glass)
- Property destruction
What might an officer encounter on the scene?
Well, the person with autism could be non-verbal or echolalic (repeat your questions back at them), run away (fight to flight), or cover their ears. He or she may have an inconsistent yes and no response to questions, have pitch and inflection voice quality problems, or may be sensitive to light, sound, smell, textures or temperatures, and may hide or not want to be close.
He/She may touch his/her private parts or be bluntly honest with communication responses (appear rude and unkind).
What could the officer do to help the situation?
- Look for an ID (on wrist, sewed in clothes, around neck). An autism decal on a car might be visible.
- Be calm (soft voice, short phrases, space between phrases) and remember a person may not respond right away to questions. They may need to be repeated.
- He/She may cover his/her ears. Don’t worry. This may just mean he/she is overwhelmed.
- Avoid idioms, jokes, sarcasm. They are not always understood.
- He/She may have a communication device. Maybe the device has been programed to ask for help, provide his/her address or phone number, or say his/her name, so the officer could probe this communication avenue.
- Some use pictures to communicate. Some can write what they want, sign, or use a device. Seek alternative communication styles.
- Keep environment around the person calm (loud voices and bright lights can overstimulate).
- Keep K-9s away.
- Only touch with permission (find a way not to grab him/her).
A helpful acronym (AUTISM)
- Approach in a quiet, non-threatening way. Avoid quick motions.
- Understand touching the person may cause fight to flight.
- Talk in a calm, moderate voice and repeat directions. Be patient and wait for answers.
- Instructions should be simple and direct. No slang.
- Seek indicators. Visually evaluate for injuries. Persons with autism have high pain thresholds.
- Maintain a safe distance. Be able to retreat if behaviors escalate.
More tips for first responders
People with autism like to travel directly to where they are going. If an officer stops the car, they might become anxious and worried and self-abuse or flee the car.
A person with autism may be accused of shoplifting but may just like to rearrange or line up things. He/She may just leave the store with an object, unable to wait in line.
They might walk through the store in a robotic-like path, stare, open and close doors, turn on and off lights, push customers, and smell objects.
How can parents become partners with first responders?
- Parents could put an emergency alert decal in the car window or home window.
- They could teach their son or daughter to carry ID, wear ID, or put ID in their clothing.
- Parents could go to their local police station, introduce themselves, and bring a picture of their son or daughter to establish a connection.
- Parents could have communication devices loaded with emergency information so officers’ questions could be responded to.
- Parents could be taught to write a social story about how police help us and read it with their son or daughter.
- A social story is a story told through pictures. Parents show their son/daughter through pictures what to do when in a car accident, when he/she hears a fire alarm, or when he/she meets an officer. They show the story and tell the story to their son/daughter every month to refresh.
Here are some questions parents could teach their children to respond to:
- What is your name?
- Where do you live?
- How old are you?
- Who is your mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother?
- Where do you go to school?
- Are you hurt?
I think it is important for our first responders to know the person with autism is indeed a person. They are more like us than different. They have abilities, capabilities, dreams and hopes just like all of us. They are successful inventors, musicians, technology experts, authors, artists, models, basketball players and Hollywood stars.
- Dangerous Encounters, Avoiding Perilous Situations with Autism, A Streetwise Guide for all Emergency Responders, Retailers and Parents, by Bill Davis and Wendy Schunick, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, www.jkp.com
- Autism, Advocates, and Law Enforcement Professionals, Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, by Dennis Debbaudt, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, www.jkp.com
This article was featured in Issue 101 – Balancing The Autism Journey