Autism can make everyday interactions challenging, especially during times of stress, and situations involving first responders tend to be stressful. The behavioral characteristics of autism, including lack of eye contact and fidgeting, can look like suspicious behavior to a police officer. Scripting can be mistakenly interpreted as a confession. These misunderstandings can lead to grave consequences for individuals on the autism spectrum.
There have been many programs aimed at training police officers and other first responders on the behavioral differences of autism, but in the heat of the moment, many professionals may not be able to tell the difference. Several organizations, including Autism Speaks, offer ID cards explaining the individual’s diagnosis, and ways in which their behavior may be misinterpreted. These cards usually include a contact phone number to allow first responders to locate guardians or other advocates for the individual, and can be especially useful in cases of wandering.
Some states have gone as far as creating laws distributing ID cards to individuals diagnosed with autism. The Alabama Department of Public Safety partnered with the Autism Society of Alabama created ID cards individuals with autism can present to police officers and other first responders explaining their diagnosis. Advocates hope these cards will be a useful tool to help police officers understand the difference between suspicious, impaired behaviors and those that are a manifestation of autism.
A similar program has been implemented in Florida, where the University of Miami Center for Autism Related Disabilities (CARD) and the Disability Independence Group (DIG) collaborated with the Coral Gables police department to create ID cards. Diane Andreon, associate director of UM-CARD, said,
“Instead of waiting for a misunderstanding, they can just show their wallet card. We’re just trying to do what we can to help people with autism interact with police officers.”
Other states, like Virginia, offer an option to have a code added to an individual’s driver’s license indicating their diagnosis. The law states that the code is voluntary, but many argue this is not necessarily the case. If the individual is a minor, the code can be added by parents or guardians, and it can be challenging to have the code removed at a later time. Others fear that the “voluntary” provision may in time become not-so-voluntary.
While the overall goal of programs like these is useful, there are those who have reservations. Many fear that handing out ID cards to individuals with autism will open the door for further discrimination, including employment, housing, and medical care. Some adults with autism may choose not to disclose their diagnosis, and having a state issued ID card or driver’s license code could take that decision away from the individual. Putting a medical diagnosis such as autism on an ID card or license could have repercussions that stretch further than encounters with first responders.
The intention behind these programs is admirable, but will there be consequences that go beyond keeping people with autism safe? Some believe there may be.