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Autistic individuals, like all of us, are likely to encounter law enforcement officers at some point in their lives, whether it is in the community, during a routine traffic stop, at a concert or large community event, or as the result of a suspicious person or aggressive behavior call to 911. Unfortunately, media reports consistently document negative interactions between law enforcement officers and autistic individuals that often quickly escalate, resulting in unnecessary use of force, death, and/or leaving the autistic individual traumatized. However, there are strategies that autistic individuals, families/caregivers, community members, and law enforcement officers can use to protect the safety of autistic individuals during encounters with law enforcement officers.

What Autistic Individuals Can Do to Safely Engage with Law Enforcement Officers

When a law enforcement officer approaches a person, a car, or motorcycle, a vehicle marked with the police or sheriff’s department’s name and location will often be present or near the location. The officer will likely be dressed in a uniform with the officer’s name badge displayed prominently. They will typically identify themselves by stating their name and the department they are with. For example, “I am Officer Smith with the Oak City Police Department.” Once an officer approaches an individual, there are important things the person can do to stay safe:

  • Try to stay calm. Most people become nervous around law enforcement officers. Take deep breaths in and out.
  • An autistic individual can tell the officer they are autistic. If it helps, the autistic individual can carry an autism information card like this one. It’s a good idea to tell the officer that they are getting the card so the officer knows what they are reaching for. For example: “I have autism. I have an ID card in my pocket that I am going to get and hand to you.”
  • An autistic individual who is stopped by police can also tell the officer they want a family member or an advocate to be with them.
  • The officer is likely going to ask questions or tell the person to do something. It is important for the person to listen attentively to the officer.
  • If the officer asks the person to stop moving, for example, it is important the person stops moving and leaves their hands by their sides.
  • If the autistic person does not understand something or does not know the answer to a question, that is okay. They should tell the officer, “I do not understand.” or “I do not know.”
  • When talking with the officer, it is important to not touch the officer, anything on their uniform, or their dog.
  • Law enforcement officers’ jobs are to keep each person and the community as a whole safe. As anyone should do, autistic individuals should tell the officer if they are hurt or need help.
  • It is okay to give an officer personal information such as name, phone number, and address. If this does not feel comfortable or it’s difficult to share this information, autistic individuals can consider wearing an identification bracelet like this one.

Talking to a police officer makes most people nervous. These tips can help reduce anxiety:

  • Take deep breaths and count to five while breathing in and out.
  • If the person feels more comfortable in a quieter spot or wearing headphones, they can tell the officer. They might say “It is too loud here, can we please move to a quieter spot?” or “The noise hurts my ears, do you have any headphones I can wear?”
How Autistic Individuals, Family/Caregivers, and the Community Can Ensure Safety

Autistic individuals, their families, caregivers, and the community as a whole are key to building, enhancing, and sustaining positive relationships among law enforcement officers and all autistic individuals who live in the community. There are several proactive strategies that may make all the difference when building solid, positive relationships:

  • Autistic individuals, family members, and caregivers may wish to connect with their local law enforcement department and share information such as autism diagnosis, communication preferences, areas of attraction, propensity toward wandering, and areas of interest. This information may be invaluable for law enforcement to have if an emergency occurs.
  • It is a great idea to visit the local police department or fire station to help build relationships and a sense of comfort around law enforcement individuals, emergency personnel, and their vehicles. These informal engagements may go a long way in building understanding and prior knowledge about first responders in case an emergency does occur.
  • It is essential that community members educate themselves on autism. The more understanding, awareness, and respect surrounding autism, the better emergency interactions and engagement more generally will go. Simply because a person is behaving in a way that seems out of the ordinary does not automatically necessitate an emergency response. Community awareness and education on autism will add to a foundation of acceptance and a celebration of diversity.

OAR provides a variety of educational and informational resources, including Life Journey Through Autism: A Guide to Safety. Building awareness about autism and fostering positive relationships and acceptance help keep autistic people safe in their communities.

What Law Enforcement Officers Can Do to Increase Safety

Law enforcement officers can receive training specifically on working with autistic individuals. Ideally, the primary objectives of every autism and law enforcement training will be officer and citizen safety and making the best use of valuable time and resources. If it is safe to do so, officers should be prepared to provide extra time and attention when interacting with autistic individuals. As an example, responses to even basic questions such as “What’s your name?” may require 15 seconds or more for the person to process the question, develop a response, and then provide the answer. The response may be verbal, written out on paper, or provided through other forms of communication, such as a picture exchange communication system (i.e., words and images that may be printed out, on a tablet, or through an augmented and alternative communication device) or American Sign Language.

Officers can also learn to give autistic individuals extra personal space and to model positive body language including hand and arm gestures, facial expressions, and emotional tones of voice. The autistic person may be influenced by and repeat or reflect an officer’s spoken communications, body language, and behaviors.

The decision to provide autism training for frontline personnel should be coupled, as soon as possible, with the opportunity to meet with autistic people of all ages and independence skills at planned events. Planned, informal interactions, such as the Officer Friendly Day held in Flint, Mich., are perfect opportunities for officers to practice the tips and advice they learned in the training room. For example, officers will learn for themselves how effective using simple spoken words, body language, and facial expressions can be. Such interactions build officers’ ability to recognize autism characteristics they may experience during an unplanned contact and/or when responding to a call. Making determinations that the person is possibly autistic and not a threat to themselves or others are difficult yet essential decisions for any officer, and training and preparation make those decisions less difficult.

Everyone deserves to feel safe at home, in their community, and at work. Autistic individuals are valued members of their community and should feel and be safe in community spaces. It is imperative that we work together as a community, in partnership with autistic individuals, their families and caregivers, and law enforcement officers, to increase the safety of autistic individuals in their homes, communities, places of employment, and when interacting with law enforcement officers.


Dennis Debbaudt is an independent investigative researcher, author, and parent of an autistic adult son. His work has focused on the interactions between police and autistic people since 1991. Debbaudt has reported on this subject matter for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, International Association of Chiefs of Police, OAR, Eunice Shriver Center, Journal of Healthcare Protection Management and Jessica Kingsley, Springer and Woodbine House publishers. He’s presented autism training for police in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia since 1995.

 

Melissa Sreckovic, Ph.D., is an associate professor in education at the University of Michigan-Flint. Her research focuses on improving outcomes for autistic individuals through identifying promising practices that promote authentic inclusion of autistic individuals in schools and communities, examining the efficacy of interventions for individuals on the spectrum, and translating research to practice to support autistic individuals, educators, service providers, and community members.

 

Christine Kenney, Ph.D., is an associate professor in education at the University of Michigan-Flint and a former special education teacher. Her research focuses on engaging with learners of all ages around topics of inclusion, special education, community building, and reflective practice. In addition, she enjoys working in community outreach to build and sustain positive inclusive practices between individuals with disabilities and the community at large.