Autism and the police – I am frightened

Autism, youth and law enforcement –  All this week we are discussing the issues surrounding law enforcement and young people who are on the autism spectrum.

This is an issue of great concern for any parent or caregiver of a child or young person who is autistic. No matter where in the world you live.

There have been many stories in the media about young people who are on the autism spectrum and how they have become involved in police matters. What has come to light is how the police are not trained to deal with autistic youths and that they have very little knowledge about autism. We recently covered a story in January, Police training sought after man with autism wrongfully arrested about Tario Anderson, a South Carolina man who was wrongfully arrested because of the way he acted socially due to his autism.  Then in February we covered the story, Young man with autism, Reginald “Neli” Latson released from prison about Reginald “Neli” Latson, again a young man on the autistic spectrum who, over the years had several encounters with the police and who had been placed into a correctional facility. He has now been released.

As the mother of a young son on the autistic spectrum, the issues surrounding police and individuals with autism is of huge interest to me, and to be honest I am frightened. I remember vividly reading the story of a young boy who was on a familiarisation visit to a swimming pool with his special needs class. He had broken away from his group and had stood by the side of the pool. After 30 minutes he management had called the police, who had little training and awareness of autism, and so handled the situation incorrectly. They touched the boy who then jumped into the pool fully clothed. Luckily the boy was unharmed from the effects of jumping into the pool, but he was subsequently restrained by seven police officers. This was a child! I remember reading this story with shivers running down my spine.This could have so easily been my little boy. The full story can be read here.

What is of great concern to me is when my little boy grows to be a teenager and then a young man. How will the police perceive him? Will they know upon talking to him or observing him that he is autistic? I carry an Autism Alert card with me at the moment, and as my son grows older, he will carry one on him, but will the police have time to read this information? Or indeed, will they find it?

As I live in the UK, I looked for information on the National Autistic Society (NAS) website and read with interest their position statement regarding crime and autism, which can be read here. They state:

‘Some people with autism may also be more vulnerable to criminal acts against them because of their social difficulties and they may be taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals or become unwitting accomplices to criminal activity. Appropriate support needs to be in place in order that victims are understood and appropriately represented.

In addition, once a person with autism is in the criminal justice system, the nature of their difficulties may not be recognised or may be misunderstood. In these circumstances it is possible for miscarriages of justice to occur and it is therefore vital that legal experts are familiar with autism and its complexities.’

I also found information about individuals who on the spectrum and how they may be treated in prison. The NAS states on their Prison and ASDs information page:

‘If a person is diagnosed with ASD whilst in prison they may be placed under section 43 of the Prison Regulation Act, which means they will be classed as vulnerable. This may lead to one of the following options:

  • segregation
  • being moved to a hospital wing
  • being moved to a more suitable prison.

All prisons have a Disability Liaison Officer (DLO) whose role it is to co-ordinate and distribute information about disability to staff and prisoners. In some prisons, DLOs have an extended role which may involve contact with prisoners. All prisons also offer buddy or befriender schemes where prisoners who have been trained by The Samaritans are available to offer support to anyone who feels upset or vulnerable.’

So what can be done to improve the relationship between the police and those individuals who are on the spectrum? Firstly police need knowledge and training about autism and how an autistic individual may react when approached by the police. This is very often a ‘fight or flight’ response.  Awareness is key and the more that the police know and understand about autism, the better the relationship between them and the autism community.

However, I also feel that not all responsibility should be placed upon the police. We as parents and caregivers also have a role to play in educating our children. We need to tell them from a young age about the law, and that they should not be afraid of the police. They should be encouraged to trust them. This is so that if they are ever approached by the police they will hopefully know that they are safe and will not react in such a way that will arouse suspicion.

Your comments upon this issue are very much welcome.







  1. Emily Iland March 5, 2015
    • Lisa Reilly March 20, 2015
  2. BETTY THOMAS March 21, 2015
  3. MWalker March 22, 2015