When Autism and Law Enforcement Cross Paths

Police officer holding handcuffsOne of my biggest concerns that I have for my autistic son is how he will get along in the community as an adult. More specifically, how will he interact with strangers and if need be, law enforcement should such an event take place.

I try to teach my son as much as possible so that he can one day be somewhat independent. I include him in all that we do, going grocery shopping, running errands, paying for items at the checkout and even interacting with strangers when they say hello. All these things do not come easily or naturally to him and they impose an even greater effort when dealing with strangers.

Sometimes his reaction can be abrupt, even rude at times. To anyone who does not know him, he would come off as someone that is aggressive.

Truth is he’s not aggressive at all. He’s the sweetest, most gentle boy you could ever meet. However, putting him in a stressful situation makes him act quite differently.

We hear so many awful stories of autistic individuals (adults and children) that not only have had a terrible encounter with the police but some have been arrested, even killed because of their behaviour.

A quick Google search will list a handful of horror stories that I can’t even bare to read. They frighten me to the very core.
But this is a reality that we must face.

This is in fact an unacceptable reality that needs to change.

My son doesn’t always respond when he’s asked a question. He most often decides to take flight from a situation that makes him uncomfortable or that he simply doesn’t want to talk about. He doesn’t always communicate clearly and I cannot be certain that under a given set of wrong circumstances that his reaction would not put him in a very dangerous spot. This I cannot bare to think about.

As long as I am here I will always do my best to protect my child. But I cannot be with him at every moment and I am not eternal. So that moment of probability can always surface at any given time.

This is where we must be proactive. Not only must we help our children by preparing them for society and community integration but we must also make a conscious effort as a society to become more knowledgeable when dealing with individuals with special needs.

Law enforcement officials and anyone else working and dealing with the public, such as first responders, firemen etc., need to learn and be more aware of the different types of behaviours that can manifest from autism spectrum disorder. I believe that this should be an imperative part of their training program across the board.

It is one thing to talk about it but it is completely another to implement change and do all that is necessary to properly train people in order to be skilled and prepared at handling individuals with autism and other special needs.

Some communities actually do have training seminars that educate law enforcement on how to deal with individuals with autism. This sensitizes them and makes them much more aware of the potential behaviour as well as teaching them the proper skills on how to approach the individual.

This is a positive step in the right direction.

Another positive step in the right direction is talking to our children and making them aware of what to do in the even that they cross paths with law enforcement.

Here are some tips that can help keep a potential encounter with the police safe and less stressful:

  • Have an identification card on them that explains their autism just in case they are not capable of verbally expressing themselves. Sometimes a stressful situation can make communicating very difficult.
  • Practice with your child what they can say to a police officer if they are approached such as “Officer I am autistic” making the officer aware straight away in case he or she is questioning their behaviour or manner in which they are speaking.
  • Ensure that they understand if approached by police never to run away from them and never reach into their pockets or jackets. Hands out of pants/pockets and stand still. This will probably be the most important point to understand.
  • They should have on them “In Case of Emergency” contact number if they are unable to recall it by memory. The officer may want to contact someone to ensure their safe return home.

These are just a few tips that I have used with my son and although it is impossible to predict anything in life and as much as we try to prepare ourselves and our children for certain situations, we don’t know how things will transpire until the actual moment presents itself.

I am grateful that autism awareness is much more present in our community than it was 20 even 10 years ago.

Even so, as parents with children with special needs, it is our responsibility and duty to educate them and prepare them as much as possible for the real world.

  • Les Wood says:

    I think that you have hit on part of the solution. I have an goddaughter on the spectrum and I am terrified about a potential encounter with the police even though she is just 8 years old. The police need to be trained on what to look for in an autistic child or adult. There was just an incident fairly recently where an autistic child(8or9) was handcuffed, placed in a type of straight jacket chair and arrested for resisting arrest and for assaulting an officer. That showed me the cops have no clue. They operate on one gear. They don’t seem to be able to analyze a situation like that and act accordingly. With the ever increasing number of kids on the spectrum police need to be trained on how to deal with someone with that diagnosis. It should be mandatory with all police departments around the nation that they receive that type of training.

    • Hello Les, Thank you for your comment. There are many communities that have had their law enforcement officers properly trained and educated about autism. However, there are many more that are not. It is a constant concern and I also believe that this training should be mandatory for all officials that work with the public, especially law enforcement. Wishing you all the best. Regards, Linda

  • matt Dietz says:

    our organization has a free individualized wallet card for persons on the autism spectrum for police interaction and a training video for persons with autism and the police. It’s free and it’s spreading to other communities and police departments. Please see our website… http://Www.justdigit.org, and click on the wallet card button.

    • Sonja says:

      Hi Matt that sounds amazing. My Son has applied for your wallet card but looking at your site I’m not sure whether he will receive it as we live in the UK.

    • Hello Matt, I love your organization and I love the collaborated work you are doing with Coral Gables Police Department. I’ve seen the video and it resonates so deeply with me because the young man in that video (sitting on the bench) reminds me so much of my son. Your organization is doing amazing things and helping so many people. You all should be very proud! Regards, Linda

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