How to Respond to People with Autism on the Beat
By Matthew Loux, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
As the number of autistic children increases, police officers and first responders are more likely to interact with autistic people. Officers must know how to recognize the signs of autism, understand the behaviors and tendencies of autistic individuals, and learn how to modify a standard police response to accommodate them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 68 American children have some type of autism, which is up from previous estimates of 1 in 88 children. Autism is more common in boys, with 1 out of 42 boys diagnosed with autism compared to 1 in 189 girls. The CDC reports there are 3 million individuals diagnosed with autism in the United States, with tens of millions diagnosed worldwide.
What is Autism?
Autism is a developmental disability characterized by having difficulty in social interactions, displaying repetitive behavior, and having challenges with verbal and nonverbal communication. Those with autism sometimes have intellectual difficulties, physical problems, and issues with coordination of motor skills. The range of issues that involve learning, thinking and problem-solving can be mild, severe, or anywhere in between. Research studies indicate that signs and symptoms of autism begin to be seen at about age 2 or 3.
Some of the indicators of people with autism include:
- Becoming overly focused on certain objects
- Rarely making eye contact
- Failing to engage in typical babbling with parents
- Withdrawing and becoming indifferent to social engagement
- Impaired ability to make friends with peers
- Impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
- Absence or impairment of imaginative and social play
- Repetitive or unusual use of language
- Abnormally intense or focused interest
- Inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals
Police and Autism
The law enforcement community needs to understand the signs, symptoms and appropriate response when dealing with situations involving autistic individuals. For further information about autism, visit the Autism Society where officers can find many excellent resources, research, and local affiliations to provide support for law enforcement and family members. The Autism Society also has a map tool that provides information about local affiliates that can help officers if they need professional assistance when working with an autistic individual.
In recognition of April as Autism Awareness Month, below are some of the ways officers should respond to individuals with autism.
How to Respond to Aggressive Behavior
Those with autism often show signs of aggression, which is often caused by a feeling that they are not in control because others misinterpret what they are trying to say. Aggression can also be caused by sensory overload, which can happen when there are too many perceived colors, sounds, or verbal commands. Officers must remember that those with autism like structure and it is likely that a chaotic situation will lead an autistic individual to display aggressive behavior.
An autistic person may bite, hit, slap, pull hair, and pinch others when they are upset. Officers must keep themselves safe, while trying to calm the person down. One way is to offer rewards to encourage the person to calm down.
It is also important for officers to refrain from restraining an autistic person unless they are hurting themselves or others. Many autistic people are sensitive to touch and restraining them will only further aggravate them, not help them calm down. If restraining a person is necessary, officers should avoid positional asphyxia and turn the person on their side to allow for normal breathing.
Officers also should know that autistic individuals tend to have a high threshold of pain, which can mask medical issues. Even though a person is not displaying signs of injury, it is possible they are hurt.
Speak Literally, Clearly, and Calmly
Officers should use literal language when talking to a person with autism and avoid sarcasm. When talking with someone with autism and they give you a blank stare, repeat the question or consider rephrasing the question or statement. You may also try to rethink what you are asking or telling them and break that into smaller, direct tasks or steps so they can easily understand what is wanted. Also, consider using a “first – then” approach such as “first we sit here and then your mom will arrive.”
It is also important to be very patient with an autistic person and remain calm. Give them plenty of time to respond to your request or answer your question.
Try to Relate to Them
If possible, try to figure out their favorite topics or interests. Many autistic people have favorite subjects, whether it’s a comic book character or school subject. If you can determine their interests, this can be a great way to form a bond with them and help get them to cooperate.
Scenarios to Avoid
Autistic people are very sensitive and officers should do their best to create a calming environment with as little distraction as possible. Officers should:
- Avoid loud noises and lights unless necessary. Do not use siren or lights, and turn down the radio.
- Try to talk one-on-one in a small, comfortable space.
- Use caution if you are trying to move a person to a more comfortable position, as they may become agitated with the change in environment.
- If an individual starts to have a meltdown, let them de-escalate on their own, but monitor them for seizures that can be caused by stress.
- Ask direct questions, slowly and one at a time. Give them plenty of time to process the information.
- If you need to touch them, use a firm touch because in some autistic individuals, a light touch can be painful. This is because of the sensory nature of the hairs on the body that sends a signal to the brain of an alarm. However, a firm touch negates those alarm signals to the brain.
Officers must be careful not to interpret the actions of someone with autism as being suspicious. Those with autism tend not to make eye contact and their physical behavior such as hand flapping, fixating on objects, and twirling may lead officers to believe that a person is acting suspiciously. Also, autistic individuals tend to fixate on shiny objects such as badges or a gun and may reach for those objects. They do not always recognize space boundaries and some officers may misinterpret their physical closeness as aggressive or threatening behavior.
Engaging with autistic individuals can be challenging. It is important for officers to be aware of the signs of autism and know the best way to modify a standard police response.
About the Author: Matt Loux has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years and has a background in fraud and criminal investigation, as well as hospital, school, and network security. Matt has researched and studied law enforcement and security best practices for the past 10 years.