Autism Awareness: There’s no such thing as a routine police encounter. Here’s how we can protect both kids and cops.


Most law enforcement professionals know that there is no such thing as a “routine” call for service. There’s no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop. There’s no room for the word “routine” in terms of police response.

Law enforcement situations are fluid, and subjects are all different with their own set of responses to situations and stimuli. This is especially true when the subject is possibly in fight or flight mode, which people often are during or right before an encounter with police.

It’s even more difficult to predict how a subject will react to an encounter with police officers when they have mental health issues or disorders like autism. People who are diagnosed with autism often have difficulty with communication as well as social interaction.

Police expect a subject to follow commands given to them in order to keep everyone involved in the situation safe. When a subject responds in a manner other than how the officer orders, or other than how the officer might expect, there might be confusion on the officer’s part.

With confusion comes misunderstanding. With misunderstanding can come harm.

This is why it’s extremely important for police to be trained in the mannerisms of people with autism and the appropriate responses for dealing with them.

As discussed previously, those with autism may have certain ways of expressing themselves (also called stimming) that an officer may not be familiar with without proper training. For example, when an officer tells a subject to “freeze,” a subject with autism may be trying to quell his nervousness and may therefor stand still, but flap his arms wildly as a form of comfort.

If an officer isn’t aware of that possibility, they may see the furtive movement as a threat, when in actuality it is not.

Contrarily, if the officer recognizes the signs that a person may be displaying autistic attributes, he can then adjust his expectations accordingly and deal with the subject in a more understanding and appropriate manner.

The big question now is how does an officer receive the training that’s necessary to gain more understanding? The training that goes beyond sitting in a classroom and reading a book, listening to someone talk, or watching a power point?

VirTra has the answer with V-VICTA™- Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy – Autism Awareness Curriculum.

The training was developed with officer as well as subject safety in mind. It’s comprised of both classroom and simulation training, which immerses the officer into a situation much like one might experience in real life.

Additionally, VirTra partnered with Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) to ensure the most realistic training available, including the use of role players who actually have autism. That’s the most real-life training possible, and it’s only available with VirTra.

Some of the information officers can expect to receive from this training includes how to recognize signs of frustration. People with autism prefer things to be told to them in simple and concrete manners, and if things start to go beyond the scope of normalcy for them, they could get upset.

A subject with autism becoming upset could escalate to a negative encounter with police, and so de-escalation tactics are particularly important with an autistic subject.

Likewise, touching a subject, moving too quickly, or using loud noises or yelling will likely upset the subject and not result in a positive outcome.

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One possible coping mechanism is keeping one’s hands in their pockets. As we in law enforcement are well aware of, one of the most important pieces of officer safety is the phrase “show me your hands.”

If an officer is able to recognize early on that a subject is autistic, they will be able to lower their heightened threat perception, calmly talk to the person so that he understands why he needs to have his hands out of his pockets, and patiently wait for the subject to understand what is happening and what he needs to do.

This training doesn’t villainize the police. It doesn’t tell officers that they need to compromise their safety when dealing with a subject who is possibly autistic.

What it does do, however, is teach an officer how to recognize an autistic subject and train them on how to best deal with them. This limits the risk of someone being unnecessarily hurt during an encounter with police.

One positive interaction with law enforcement is more likely to produce more positive interactions in the case of future encounters, so it is in everyone’s best interest to push for a positive outcome.

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