March 6, 2015

Communities in Canada and the United States are compiling registries of residents diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder to provide information to law enforcement and other first responders. The registry gives first responders advance notice that there is an individual with autism present, and allows them to modify their approach in order to avoid misunderstandings or escalations.

Many of these registries allow parents to provide information above and beyond general information, including details of their child’s favorite activities or helpful calming strategies. An article published on The Globe and Mail website describes an encounter with a teenage boy in Ottawa who was chasing his mother with a knife. The officers called to the scene approached the boy calmly, without drawing their guns, and asked him about his favorite hockey team. Eventually the boy calmed down and went to the hospital willingly. This situation may have turned out differently if the officers had arrived with sirens blaring and guns drawn.

The Ottawa registry was introduced as a pilot program in 2010, and was made permanent in 2012. Similar programs have been implemented in other communities in Canada and the United States, most recently in North Reading, Massachusetts.

These registries are meant to complement programs that train police officers and other first responders how to interact with citizens who are diagnosed with autism, who are likely to flee or be non-compliant, which can be mistaken for resisting. Other behaviors, such as echolalia, can be misinterpreted as a confession. Sirens, flashing lights, and yelling can trigger sensory issues and lead to meltdowns, and individuals who are sensitive to touch may react violently to a search or pat-down.

Many parents are eager to sign their children up, especially those who are nonverbal or prone to wandering. The information is also helpful to firefighters who may need to coax an unwilling child from a burning house, or paramedics who may need to perform first aid.

Not everyone is excited about these registries, however. Critics argue that the registries are a violation of privacy, especially when the individual is placed on them by a parent or guardian without the individual’s consent. Some worry that it may be difficult for adults to retract their registration should they choose to do so at a later date.

Others express concern over abuse of the system. It is not uncommon for criminals to plead insanity as a reason for their misdeeds, and there are those who may use autism as an excuse to avoid accountability for their actions. Some also wonder whether the list will be open to other diagnoses, such as bipolar disorder or ADHD.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, and misunderstandings can occur in spite of the best intentions. In the meantime, many parents feel safer knowing that local first responders are aware of their child’s diagnosis and able to make the necessary accommodations.

About the author 

Laurel Joss

Laurel Joss is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. She worked as an RDI® Program Certified Consultant and has published articles in Autism Spectrum Quarterly and on her blog www.remediatingautism.blogspot.com. She is a mother to two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. You can also follow her on https://twitter.com/speaking_autism and https://www.facebook.com/speaking.autism.ca

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