For many of us, autism spectrum risk and safety management is a daily concern. We now know that with the increase in autism diagnoses, there is also a corresponding increase of autism-related contacts with law enforcement, community safety and juvenile and criminal justice organizations and professionals. Across the nation, autism advocacy organizations are increasingly addressing the educational needs of police and law enforcement professionals; first and initial responders such as fire rescue, paramedics, 911 dispatch operators, and hospital personnel; criminal justice professionals, including prosecutors, defense attorney, judges and magistrates, correctional, probation, and parole professionals. Consequently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and many other U.S. law enforcement agencies are currently providing autism training and educational materials for their work forces. While there is much, much more to be done, the strides the autism community has made in developing national, regional, and local partnerships with law enforcement, emergency response, and criminal justice agencies are a step in the right direction. The following excerpts are from the Autism and Law Enforcement Roll Call Briefing Video Script and Appendix (Debbaudt and Legacy, 2004).
Some Common Reasons for Autism Related Contacts or 911 Calls
A child or adult has wandered away from parent or caregiver, home or school. The person may also wander into traffic, railways or attempt to enter nearby homes or dwellings. Parent or caregiver actions are misinterpreted or appear as assault. When a person displays unusual behavior in a community setting where they are not known, these behaviors may be interpreted by others as suspicious, threatening, criminal in nature, or as someone high on drugs or other substances. Rearranging or making order out of store displays or products may appear as shoplifting. When a person displays escalated behavior in the community, at school, or at home, unaware of the person’s autism, citizens will call 911.
Officer should understand that an individual with autism:
- May inappropriately approach or run towards officers.
- In emergencies, may flail against medical procedures; may attempt to re-enter dangerous environment (i.e., a burning home, flee into traffic, or touch a downed power line).
- May be non-verbal.
- Can become upset with changes in routine for apparently trivial reasons.
- May not recognize your uniform or marked vehicle, or understand what is expected of them if they do.
- May not understand your verbal commands or use of slang expressions.
- May not understand your command presence, body language, and non-verbal communications, such as rolling of eyes, raising of eyebrows, shrugs, or hand signals.
- May be attracted to shiny objects and actually reach for your badge, radio, keys, belt buckle, or weapon.
- May display repetitive, self-stimulation behaviors, such as twirling an object or themselves, finger or hand flicking, body rocking, pacing, or talking to themselves.
- May run or move away when approached by officer or any stranger; sensory overload.
May flee from lights, sirens, canine partners, aromas or even a light, comforting touch.
Be alert to sensory overload. Your sirens and lights may cause further anxiety and increase a negative reaction from the child or adult who has autism. Be aware that your attempts to stop these behaviors may result in the person’s escalated, self-protective actions, such as a “fight or flight” reaction.
You may be called to respond to a situation where the person with autism is displaying escalated behavior that has alarmed a citizen or is apparently beyond the control of the parent or caregiver. These calls will challenge the training and instincts of even the most experienced veteran.
You may learn the person has autism from your dispatcher, someone at the scene, or the person himself or herself. Here are some tips for responding officers.
- Make sure the person is unarmed and maintain a safe distance because they may suddenly invade your personal space.
- Talk calmly and softly.
- Speak in direct, short phrases such as: “Stand up now.” “Get in the car.”
- Avoid slang expressions, such as: “What’s up your sleeve?” “Are you pulling my leg?”
- Allow for delayed responses to your questions or commands.
- Repeat or rephrase.
- Consider use of pictures, written phrases and commands, and sign language.
- Use low gestures for attention; avoid rapid pointing or waving.
- Examine for presence of medical alert jewelry or tags, or an autism handout card.
- Model calming body language (such as slow breathing and keeping hands low).
- Model the behavior you want the person to display.
- A person with autism may not react well to changes in routine or the presence of strangers, even a uniformed stranger.
- Officers should not interpret the person’s failure to respond to orders or questions as a lack of cooperation or a reason for increased force.
- Seek information and assistance from parent or others at the scene about how to communicate with and de-escalate person’s behavior.
- Avoid stopping repetitive behaviors unless there is risk of injury to yourself or others. If the individual is holding and appears to be fascinated with an inanimate object, consider allowing subject to hold the item for the calming effect (if officer safety is not jeopardized by doing so).
- Evaluate for injury: person may not ask for help or show any indications of pain, even though injury seems apparent.
- Be aware that the person may be having a seizure.
- Be aware of person’s self-protective responses and sensitivities to even usual lights, sounds, touches, orders, and animals.
- If possible, turn off sirens and flashing lights and remove canine partners, crowds, or other sensory stimulation from the scene.
- If person’s behavior escalates, use geographic containment and maintain a safe distance until any inappropriate behaviors lessen.
- Remain alert to the possibility of outbursts or impulsive acts.
- Use your discretion. If you have determined that the person is unarmed and established geographic containment, use all available time to allow the person to de-escalate themselves without your intervention.
The person with autism will have difficulty processing your questions. They may be unable to give name, address, phone number, or be unable to present ID when asked. Expect your interview to take longer. The person may have the information you need. However, they may be difficult to understand.
It is common for people with autism to repeat your words and phrases. This is known as echolalia. For example, the officer says, “What’s your name?” Person replies, “What’s your name?” Officer says, “Are you trying to be a smart aleck?” Person replies, “Are you trying to be a smart aleck?” Officer says, “How about if I run you in?” Person replies, “How about if I run you in?” Be aware that a person with autism may also model your body language and emotional state.
Here are some tips for interviewing a person with autism.
- Do not take a lack of eye contact, the changing of subjects, or answers that are vague, evasive or blunt as evidence of guilt knowledge. These are common characteristics of people with autism.
- The person may truly not understand Miranda warnings even when they say they do.
- The verbal, higher functioning person may have autism or Asperger Syndrome. They may be overly influenced by standard interrogation techniques and produce a misleading statement or false confession.
- To avoid confusion, ask questions that rely on narrative responses.
- Consider asking a series of unrelated “yes” or “no” questions to determine the style and dependability of the response.
- If you have learned that the person has autism or Asperger Syndrome, prior to questioning, consider contacting a specialist familiar with these conditions.
With their unusual responses to your questions, the person with autism may challenge all of your training. Follow procedure, but also follow your gut instincts if you feel something isn’t quite right with the subject of your investigation. As in the old adage: if the statement or confession is “too good to be true,” it probably is.
People with autism are oftentimes victims of crime, such as: sexual, verbal, or physical assault. This can occur anywhere. Investigators can overcome the communication barriers of interviewing the person with autism when they seek assistance from the autism community. Become familiar with the person’s communication style and background by reviewing fresh records and interviewing others who know the person well. Ask parents, caregivers, and people who know the victim for tips about how the person gives and receives information. If not verbal, how do they communicate?
- Seek permission to and consider videotaping the interview.
- Consider having a person the victim trusts present at the interview.
- Avoid uniforms or authority clothing.
- Get to know the person’s communication style through casual conversation before any attempt to get recollection of event.
- Plan questioning based on person’s ability level.
- Develop good rapport; use person’s first name.
- Use simple, direct language and deal with one issue at a time.
- Encourage the witness to recreate the context in his or her own words. Ask questions that require a narrative answer.
- Make sure your words and their words have meanings that you both understand to be the same.
- Make sure that you and the victim-witness understand whom is being referred to when using pronouns.
- Be alert to non-verbal cues that suggest the witness does not understand, is confused, or does not agree with the question you asked or the statements you have made (i.e., restlessness, frowning, and extremely long pauses).
- The victim may not want to answer questions more than once (explain first that you may have to ask questions more than once).
- Let victim know it is okay to say “no” to your questions.
- Become convinced the person understands or is known to tell the truth.
- Avoid leading questions.
- Carefully establish timelines.
- Learn person’s schedule and determine events through this context, rather than asking, “What time did it happen?”
- Person may have short attention span. Consider several short interviews.
- Be alert to a spontaneous disclosure of evidence (Farrar, 1998).
U.S. research indicates that persons with developmental disabilities, including autism, will have up to seven times more contacts with law enforcement than a member of the general population (Curry et al., 1993). These contacts can be public safety emergencies or criminal justice situations. High on the list of risks are children and adults who bolt and flee from our homes, parents and care providers. As with Alzheimer’s families, autism families face constant pressure to secure their home’s doors and windows. We erect fences, consult with security companies, sleep in shifts, and fear the scrutiny of neighbors, law enforcement and social service professionals all the while looking for answers from professionals about our children’s wandering. Persons with autism often lack a fear of real danger. When mixed with a propensity to wander, the two are a deadly combination. Autism wanderers commonly drown, are found in road ways, on train tracks, attempt to enter homes and dwellings, have been frozen to death, have disappeared, and have been sexually abused and murdered. The autism community worldwide is keenly aware of life-threatening, autism-based wandering and is taking steps to address it.
Preparing for a wandering incident may seem extreme for some families. After all, their child or adult hasn’t wandered or bolted. Yet, for many other families addressing wandering the first time is the worst time. These preparations will also be invaluable in a natural or man-made emergency situation. For example, when a parent or care provider has their own medical emergency and becomes quickly incapacitated.
Modifications in the Home
For many families, securing their home against chronic and dangerous wandering is the first order of preparedness. They may consult with professional security and burglar alarm, locksmiths, and home improvement companies that are familiar with 21st century technology that can help secure a home. Always keep a record of your anti-wandering efforts. You may need to prove to authorities that you are not neglectful parents or care providers. Anyone interested in the Environmental Modifications for the Home report by Jason Hoffroge can visit www.autismriskmanagement.com and download it.
The Autism Society of America’s Safe and Sound initiative features autism alert stickers for homes and vehicles–and an example of what information can be developed, photocopied, carried by parents, care providers, or persons on the spectrum to produce or be found during an emergency–and shared proactively with law enforcement, emergency response agencies, and persons that should be contacted during an emergency. Visit www.autism-society.org for more information.
An Autism Emergency Contact Handout Model should include the following information:
- Name of child or adult
- Current photograph and physical description including height, weight, eye and hair color, any scars or other identifying marks
- Names, home, cell and pager phone numbers and addresses of parents, other caregivers and emergency contact persons
- Sensory, medical, or dietary issues and requirements, if any
- Inclination for elopement and any atypical behaviors or characteristics that may attract attention
- Favorite attractions and locations where person may be found
- Likes, dislikes–approach and de-escalation techniques
- Method of communication, if non-verbal ¬ sign language, picture boards, written word
- ID wear ¬ jewelry, tags on clothes, printed handout card
- Map and address guide to nearby properties with water sources and dangerous locations highlighted
- Blueprint or drawing of home, with bedrooms of individual highlighted
- Obtain and maintain fingerprints (Debbaudt, 2002)
In the United States, some law enforcement, fire rescue, and emergency 911 call centers are willing and able to proactively place this information into their data base. When a call comes in for response to Alzheimer’s, autism, or medically fragile families who participate–911 dispatchers can alert the first responder before they arrive with key information that was provided. Although not every system or agency is able to provide this service, it is certainly worthy of inquiry.
Alert Your Neighbors
The behaviors and characteristics of autism have the potential to attract attention from the public. Law enforcement professionals suggest that families of individuals with autism reach out and get to know their neighbors. Knowing your neighbors can lead to better social interactions for your loved ones with autism. (Debbaudt, 2004) The best way to approach this is to take the following measures.
- Decide what information to present to neighbors.
- Plan a brief visit to your neighbors.
- Introduce your child or adult or a photograph.
- Give your neighbor a simple handout with your name, address, and phone number.
- Ask them to call you immediately if they see your son or daughter outside the home.
- This approach may be a good way to avoid problems down the road and will let your neighbors.
- Know the reason for unusual behaviors.
- Know that you are approachable.
- Have the opportunity to call you before they call 911.
Sharing autism recognition, risk and safety information with all district employees is crucial. It is essential to include transportation, maintenance, cafeteria, and secretarial staff in briefings and training on issues such as school safety, threat assessment, information gathering, and crisis intervention procedures.
There are many reasons why it is important to include transportation, maintenance, cafeteria, and other non-teaching staff in autism risk and safety sessions. For one thing, when these individuals learn to use basic spectrum communication and response techniques, they can become valuable assets for school authorities. For another, there are added benefits for the students, since these staff members may come to be viewed as teachers or administrators, and as such, the student may seek assistance from them. In addition, these employees can assist school security by providing extra sets of eyes and ears, especially when it comes to monitoring episodes of bullying, teasing and taunting. Most importantly, the relationships developed with non-teaching staff can pay off in early recognition of school-place bullying.
It is predictable that the behaviors and characteristics that students on the spectrum inherently display will draw the attention of other students. Unaware that their behaviors, physical posture, vocal tone, apparent aloofness, and social gaffes are attracting unwanted attention, students with ASD can make perfect targets for bullies (Debbaudt, 2003). Bullies typically become adept at selecting their victims. Their actions often take place quickly, and out of the sight and hearing space of teachers. Since bullying often occurs on the school bus, school security can and should observe the interactions between the student on the spectrum, and his or her peers on the school bus. Likewise, they should exercise vigilance with respect to observing students entering and leaving schools; navigating the hallways between classes; and using the restrooms, cafeteria, and playground, since these are also target areas for bullies. Finally, it is important to be mindful that older, more independent students on the spectrum may be at greater risk than those who require, and hence receive, more adult supervision.
It is well understood that early intervention and education are the keys to helping students with ASD to develop critical life skills. Helping students on the spectrum navigate the tough and confusing unstructured social spaces in school, and in life, is one of those critical life skills. Addressing this issue will take some forethought; however, parents and educators can learn valuable information through his/her contacts with drivers and aides, maintenance and cafeteria employees that can enable him or her to discover the seeds of bullying and to deal with it early and effectively. (Excerpt from the Autism Spectrum Quarterly, Summer 2004, The Role of the Family-School Liaison Counselor: Safety and Risk Support for Students with ASD by Walter Coles and Dennis Debbaudt)
Safety and Risk Life Skills Education for Students on the Spectrum
Safety and risk management becomes part of all of our everyday lives. We may not be involved in auto accidents on a daily basis, but we still buckle our seat belts before we drive off. We make safety and risk preparation part of our everyday routines by preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
Children and adults on the spectrum will benefit greatly throughout their lives from safety and risk life skills education at home, school and in the community. This education should begin early, often and be suited to the person’s age and ability level.
For example, some lessons may be to learn to expect and respond well to a sudden interaction with police, emergency responders, and other authorities. In addition, how to safely carry and produce personal ID and autism information card, to stay with, not run from a safe “go to” uniformed officer and to avoid sudden movements could also be useful information for someone with autism.
Planning contacts with police and other authorities can help demystify those in uniform and allow first responders to see for themselves the dilemmas of communication and behavior the person with autism may present. These cross-educational opportunities can help educate persons on the spectrum, parents, care providers, educators, and law enforcers about each other’s needs and expectations. The knowledge obtained through these safe, structured, and controlled contacts will allow both person with autism and good law enforcers to make accommodations during a future sudden yet predictable field interaction.
Developing Partnerships with Law Enforcement
We can assist and encourage our advocacy organizations in their outreach to law enforcement and emergency agencies when we help identify autism contacts who work in these professions.
Almost every good autism and law enforcement partnership that I’m aware of has identified autism moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors who are police officers, investigators, fire rescue or emergency medical technicians, 911/999 dispatchers, hospital emergency room professionals, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and magistrates, correctional and private sector criminal justice professionals who are more than willing to help with these efforts. Some are able to take a public position and some are not. All, however, can provide advice, contacts, technical assistance with an eye toward opening doors and minds to issues of autism safety and risk. Ask yourself whom you know in these professions. Then ask them to help.
Families and persons with new diagnoses need to be alerted immediately about wandering and safety and risk issues. Our advocacy organizations are now moving to make these issues permanent agenda items. Our advocacy organizations–national, regional and local–are us, need to hear from us and, more importantly, need our assistance and support.
Working together we can make our communities safer for us as well as our sons and daughters.
Curry, K., Posluszny, M. and Kraska, S. (1993) Training Criminal Justice Personnel to Recognize Offenders with Disabilities. Washington, DC: Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services News In Print.
Debbaudt, D. (2004) “Are You Prepared fr an Autism Emergency?” Dennis Debbaudt’s Port. St. Lucie, Florida. Autism Risk and Safety Newsletter.
Debbaudt, D. and Coles, W. (2004) “The Role of the Family-School Liaison Counselor: Safety and Risk Support for Students with ASD.” Autism Spectrum Quarterly.
Debbaudt, D. and Legacy, D. (2004) Autism and Law Enforcement Role Call Briefing Video. Debbaudt Legacy Productions, Port St. Lucie, Florida. (video and booklet).
Debbaudt, D. (2002) Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, London-Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Farrar, P. (1998) ‘Preparing for the Interview’, In Hutchinson, L. (ed) Admissible In Court: Interviewing Witnesses Who Live With Disabilities,
Lethridge, Alberta, Canada: Hutchinson MacLean Productions.
A professional investigator and journalist for 28 years, Dennis Debbaudt turned his attention to autism spectrum disorders in 1987 after his son was diagnosed with autism. He’s authored numerous articles and books including Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders and “Contact with Individuals with Autism: Effective Resolutions” with Darla Rothman for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin and reprinted in Sheriff Magazine. Debbaudt’s “Autism and Law Enforcement Roll Call Briefing” video was released in 2004. Over the past 11 years, Debbaudt, a member of the American Society for Law Enforcement Training (ASLET), has trained law enforcement, criminal justice, and education professionals throughout the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom.