When Autism and Law Enforcement Meet: Training, Understanding and Advocacy
As the parent of a high-functioning child on the autism spectrum, I long ago lost count of the times we had to explain to my son’s teachers and school administration the importance of de-escalation during a difficult moment.
The word obstinate was thrown around when he struggled to comply with basic classroom instructions, never mind that the classroom would be maxed out with 30-plus students and an often-chaotic noise level that would cause him to completely shut down.
“You need to understand when it’s autism and when it’s behavioral,” a special education teacher once chastised during an IEP meeting.
With every school authority showdown, a growing worry began to metastasize: If we couldn’t convince a highly trained special education teacher that our son’s behavior was inextricable from autism, what might happen when someday a law enforcement officer encounters his “obstinance”?
What, I wondered, might happen if a law enforcement officer encountered behaviors like literal thinking, inability to process complex orders, lack of eye contact and a combative response to touch?
Autism and Law Enforcement
By the time they reach age 21, one in five autistic youths will have been questioned by police and one in 20 will be arrested. With autism prevalence up 30 percent since 2008, the need for safety initiatives has never been greater, as evidenced by how rapidly an encounter between inadequately trained law enforcement officers and autistic individuals can escalate.
In 2017, an officer in Buckeye, Arizona, who was certified in drug recognition expertise, tackled, slammed against a tree, and pinned to the ground a 14-year-old autistic child he believed to be exhibiting signs of drug-related behavior. He released the traumatized boy only after a caretaker intervened.
In 2020, a 13-year-old autistic child was shot 11 times in an encounter with Salt Lake City police after his mother had called 911 to ask for crisis intervention support.
On September 9, 2021, police in Brunswick, Georgia, repeatedly tased a 21-year-old nonverbal autistic man who had been observed screaming and hitting himself in the head with a cooking spoon.
Speaking anonymously, one parent of an autistic adult expressed concerns about her son based on something she witnessed happen to a friend with Tourette’s during a routine traffic stop.
“They thought she was impaired on drugs and searched her car, where they found her prescription medication. They made fun of her, laughing at her and saying that she was tweaking. It was horrible.” Convinced she must be high, they took her to jail for the night.
If this could happen to a person with Tourette’s, the parent realized, it could happen to her autistic child.
As Kat Martin, who has high-functioning autism, explained, “I’ve always been afraid of police officers. They intimidate me because I feel their presence puts pressure on me to try to ‘perform.’ I get stressed and I stammer and mix up my sentences.”
If an officer isn’t familiar with neurodiversity, this behavior could be easily misunderstood.
Julie Latimer, whose 19-year-old child has high-functioning autism, agrees. “Freaking out, melting down, whatever you want to call it can mimic an individual with a mental illness, or someone on drugs, someone being non-compliant, etc. And depending on how the officer reacts and treats them, this could cause setbacks that may never be regained.”
One parent, who asked to remain anonymous, worries about her adoptive 13-year-old son, a child with a history of trauma and neglect who struggles with auditory processing issues, social skills, eye contact and self-regulation.
“His first response is verbal aggression and sometimes physical aggression. He has meltdowns, and you can’t reason with him while he is dysregulated.” She is also concerned about how his race might factor into an interaction. She is white and her son is Black.
But like many parents, she believes that the right plan could go a long way in protecting her son and others. “I’ve considered putting a sticker in our window at home and in the car because I don’t think he would follow instructions. I wish there was a way to register our home with the police so that they know not to come in with guns drawn.”
Lea Ann Friend worries about her adult autistic son when he’s driving. “If someone just met him, you wouldn’t know he was autistic because he communicates fairly well, or seems to. But he often doesn’t say what he meant to say and has to take time to think about answers. That scares me.”
Kat Martin also stressed this communication gap. “To an officer, that might look like I’m trying to hide something, which makes it worse, and I risk going into a meltdown or burnout. When that happens, I get very irritable and might verbally snap, which is bad. I’m worried about young kids who may have it worse or lack the coping skills I have.”
But a positive encounter with local law enforcement helped to allay Martin’s concerns. “He was asking me about something I had witnessed,” Martin said. “This particular officer was understanding and let me take a deep breath and calm down a bit. Even if I don’t ‘perform,’ I know the police are there to protect me and the community, and all everyone can do is their best.”
Nonetheless, there will always be gaps in the training and in the system, a reminder that advocacy work isn’t just a “one-and-done” effort.
One parent of an autistic teenager shared a unique perspective from a family member working in the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau. “No one can accurately determine whether a person is belligerent due to mental illness, drug influence, or other causes such as autism/sensory issues just by looking at them. When anyone is in a fight/flight mode, they will not be coherent enough to respond well to authorities. Unfortunately, for many, being touched or restrained triggers an even more violent response. These situations are a no-win for all involved.”
Advocacy from Law Enforcement
As I began looking at some of the programs and training in place around the country, it became clear that the best outcomes center around advocacy from within the law enforcement and first responder communities.
And because many law enforcement professionals have family members who are autistic, you don’t have to look hard to find individuals with a heart for autism advocacy within the law enforcement community.
Julie Latimer encountered this type of advocacy while living in Dallas a few years back. A Plano SWAT team member with an autistic child himself offered “tons of insight” into mitigating the very real risks that law enforcement encounters pose for autistic individuals.
“He did lessons for our kids about what to do in the event they were ever stopped, pulled over, etc. We had cards made that said ‘I have an Autism Spectrum Disorder’ and contained important demographic information.”
Ahead of the national curve, Tulsa PD has incorporated an autism curriculum into police academy training for about 15 years. This training is based on a model pioneered by Dennis Debbaudt, who began reporting on police/autism interactions back in the 1990s and helmed an effort to change those relations.
TPD also partnered with the Autism Center of Tulsa to add autism awareness to their annual mental health training.
One of the leading advocates of this training is Lt. Pat Harker, whose adult son has high-functioning autism and Tourette’s. “We’re well represented on the department as far as folks that have dealt with autism personally and/or professionally,” Lt. Harker told me. “We saw the training was needed years ago, and my major at the time reached out to me about training all of the officers.”
Officers will sometimes call Harker for support with an autistic individual who is having a difficult time, and sensory issues are one of the first concerns they’ll address. “Turn the siren off, take the handcuffs off. Talk softly, turn the radio down,” he’ll tell them.
For the training program, Harker explained, “We kind of bottled some of the behavior we like officers to have and how to handle those situations as best they can. If you’re dealing with a Tulsa police officer, they’ve been through training on how to deal with folks on the spectrum.”
During the training, officers start by learning that, as Harker explained, “Autistic doesn’t have a ‘look.’”
Officers also learn to take a step back and assess a situation. “Just grabbing somebody and manhandling them, they’re going to fight you just because they don’t understand exactly what’s going on. We know a lot of people with sensory issues don’t like to be touched.”
Depending on a person’s level of autism, Harker said, “They may walk right up to you, want to touch your gun or radio or something. They may be overstimulated, sensory, the wandering that happens sometimes, being able to communicate or not communicate.”
TPD has a Crisis Response Team (CRT) for handling many of these situations. The CRT often works with mental health issues and individuals experiencing homelessness as well as other urgent crisis issues.
For officers like Harker, sensitivity and compassion are essential to police work.
“Ninety-five percent of the time when we get called to your house or wherever you’re at, we know you’re having a bad day. We try to be empathetic and give solutions or suggestions on what they can do. It’s part of the community service we do.”
But Harker also recognizes the need for continued work and advocacy. He’s currently looking into creating and distributing an autism alert sticker for homes and vehicles to alert first responders about an autistic individual.
We also talked about the need for positive encounters between police officers and autistic individuals in a safe, controlled environment. “We want them to come to us if they’re scared and get them the service they need.”
Preparing for Encounters
There are a few important steps families and individuals can do to help prepare for encounters with law enforcement officers and first responders.
1. Continue to normalize neurodiversity.
The more people in the community see people with autism and interact with them on a personal basis, the more allies and advocacy the autistic community will have. Get to know your neighbors, talk to them about what autism looks like, and share your contact information in case of an emergency.
2. Get your information on file with first responders.
Don’t wait until an emergency to alert first responders about your loved one. First responders can actually flag your address to let them know if there’s an individual who requires special attention or care such as an autistic family member or someone with Alzheimer’s. Harker suggests calling the police non-emergency line to get your family member’s information on file.
3. Ask for CRT in a mental health emergency.
If your loved one is having a mental health emergency, call 911 and ask specifically for the Crisis Response Team. There are also specially trained Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) working within the police department to help with a mental health moment in a home with autism.
And be sure you truly need to call 911 if you’re calling for someone you don’t know. Always try to be aware of the possible outcomes when you call 911 for any reason and exercise good judgment before making that call.
4. Meet police officers.
Try to arrange for your child to interact with police officers in a safe, comfortable setting. Give verbal individuals a chance to introduce themselves and ask any questions. Meeting police officers in a neutral social environment can help autistic individuals recognize that police are just regular folks like them.
5. Practice 911 interactions.
Take the time to go over what to do in an encounter with police and use police encounter social stories.
Teach autistic children to always show their hands and never keep them in their pocket, backpack, or anywhere else when talking with police. If they need a calming object, they should tell police where it is and ask if they may carefully retrieve it.
Teach them to never touch a police officer or anything on their person like a gun or badge and remind them to be aware of personal space and not to stand too close.
They should also never touch a police officer’s dog. Let them know that the dog is an officer, too.
6. Practice stating their name, age and diagnosis.
Let them know that it’s fine to tell the officer they don’t understand what they’re being asked to do or what is happening.
Finally, tell them to wait for a caretaker before answering any questions since autistic individuals don’t always understand what they’re being asked and may be misunderstood in a way that might have legal repercussions.
7. Use autism stickers and other identifiers.
Place an alert sticker on the windows in your home and vehicles to alert police and first responders. Consider investing in a medical alert bracelet for your child as well.
For older individuals, consider adding an autism information card to your child’s wallet. Teach them never to reach for this but instead to ask police if they may show it to them.
8. Consider getting power of attorney for adult children.
Based on his personal experience, Lt. Harker reminds parents that getting power of attorney for adult children once they turn 18 gives them the legal ability to access medical records and private information and aid in the decision-making process on important issues.
9. Know helpful contact information:
- Tulsa Police Non-Emergency (918) 596-9222
- The Arc of Oklahoma (918) 582-8272