Autism and “stimming”: What law enforcement needs to know about autism awareness


PHOENIX, AZ – In the world of Law Enforcement, police deal with many different types of people. Sometimes, the people they come in contact with behave in ways other than what one might consider to be normal.

One example of this type of behavior may be hearing loss, where a person is presenting as being non-responsive but really they just can’t hear commands given.

Another example is autism. Autism diagnoses have grown over the years and it’s important for police to understand what to look for when dealing with a subject who has the disorder. If the signs aren’t recognized, it would be easy for an officer to misinterpret the subject’s behavior as a threat.

That’s where VirTra comes in with their V-VICTA (Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy) Autism Awareness Curriculum.

Law Enforcement Today recently told you about the curriculum and why it’s so important to law enforcement.

One major thing to consider when dealing with a potentially autistic subject is what’s called stimming. Stimming, self-stimulatory behavior, usually involves repetitive motions or sounds. Although everyone engages in some type of stimming behavior (pen clicking, toe tapping, nail biting, etc.), it’s significantly exaggerated in many people with autism.

Autism and "stimming": What law enforcement needs to know about autism awareness
Compliments of VirTra

Where a subject may twiddle their fingers when they’re nervous, a person with autism may flap their arms wildly. A subject might rock back and forth, step forward then back, bounce, or stomp their feet. Some of these behaviors can be seen as dangerous when an officer is already at the height of awareness.

Some of these behaviors can also be mistaken for a person being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol as well. For example, stimming for a person with autism may include scratching or rubbing their skin repeatedly, staring at lights, repeating words, or licking things.

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If an officer contacts a person with autism who is stimming and they attempt to detain the subject, the subject can get very upset because they don’t necessarily understand what’s going on. This can lead to them defending themselves, which can mean fighting with an officer and possibly causing harm when they didn’t mean to.

Unfortunately, this can also mean an officer unnecessarily causes harm to the subject as well.

Police have mistaken some of the above behaviors for threatening or indicative of inebriation more than once. A person who might not have needed to be arrested or detained has most certainly been so because the officer(s) involved didn’t know what he was dealing with.

This is not necessarily anyone’s fault, as no one in the situations mean for things to escalate and most definitely didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt.

That’s why VirTra’s Autism Awareness Curriculum is so very important. The training is virtual, interactive and judgmental and deals with different types of stimming. The program only uses role players who actually have the disorder for authenticity. You can’t get more realistic training than that.

Officers who undergo the program will first receive classroom training to learn all about stimming and different components related to autistic subjects, and then scenario-based interactive training to put those lessons to use in real-world settings.

From an administrative standpoint, the money spent on this type of training could save departments and cities money when it comes to lawsuits for mishandling calls involving autistic subjects.

From a humanitarian standpoint, it can save people, officers and subjects alike, from being hurt, physically or otherwise. It’s as simple as understanding what’s going on with a subject and why, and knowing how to respond to them.

This VirTra training is an incredible tool to help officers learn the best way to be able to do just that.

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