Law enforcement officers are usually the first responders on scene during emergency situations. To cope with unique demands, they are being trained how to respond, but their method may not always apply in certain cases. Especially regarding people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
It is important that first responders identify signs of autism in order to avoid ill-fated outcomes. An accurate assessment will help with an appropriate response.
There are non-profit organizations that work to train first responders. One includes the Commonwealth Autism. They educate peace officers as well as medical and judicial employees.
Through the program, trainees learn to recognize certain restrictive and repetitive behaviors consistent with autism, and the appropriate response. This can help diminish misunderstandings and de-escalate situations.
During the training, possible scenarios that might be seen are discussed. Such as wandering, violent behavior, and lack of eye contact.
A person with autism may be irritated by a certain sound and simply walk away from authority. This is what happened to Didi Zaryczny’s 12-year old son. He was irritated by the sound of the scanners processing goods at the grocery store. He would often walk out without paying for his food.
Zaryczny is a public safety training coordinator for Commonwealth Autism.
According to Autism Speaks, a person with autism might show these symptoms:
- Have an impaired sense of danger.
- Wander to bodies of water, traffic or other dangers.
- Be overwhelmed by police presence.
- Fear a person in uniform (i.e. fire turnout gear) or exhibit curiosity and reach for objects/equipment (i.e. shiny badge or handcuffs).
- React with “fight” or “flight.”
- Not respond to “stop” or other commands.
- Have delayed speech and language skills.
- Not respond to his/her name or verbal commands.
- Avoid eye contact.
- Engage in repetitive behavior (i.e. rocking, hand flapping, spinning).
- Have sensory perception issues.
- Have epilepsy or seizure disorder.
These are guidelines when interacting with autistic people:
- Be patient and give the person space.
- Use simple and concrete sentences.
- Give plenty of time for a person to process and respond.
- Be alert to signs of increased frustration and try to eliminate the source if possible as behavior may escalate.
- Avoid quick movements and loud noises.
- Do not touch the person unless absolutely necessary.
- Use information from a caregiver, if available, on how to best respond.
Last year, the Lynchburg (Virginia) Police Department became the first police department to train its officers to recognize signs and symptoms of autism. Their entire staff was trained, from the chief of police to the office support staff.
“The training has been very well received by the officers because it helps them recognize how they can better serve their community,” Lynchburg police Lt. Malcolm Booker said. This training is now being offered to the Lynchburg Sheriff’s Office as well.
The number of children with autism has increased to one out of every sixty-eight. As a result, the possibility of having encounters with them increases. That makes the training more important.
During a meltdown, families with autistic children are sometimes hesitant to call 911, because they are unsure what level of service they will receive. This training has given families new confidence in seeking help according to Zaryczny.
The organization hopes to implement the training online to make it more accessible to first responders.
Zaryczny advocates for events that facilitate interaction between law enforcement and the autistic community. In this way, people with autism will be more comfortable reaching out to law enforcement officers in times of trouble.
Another training program is the Autism Law Enforcement Response Training (ALERT) started by a former police officer Stephanie Cooper, a mother of a child with autism. The program provides officers with sensory kits designed to help autistic people.
The kits will be issued to them once they’ve completed “Autism 101.”
According to Cooper, “People with autism have communication issues, and law enforcement officers need to be aware that their typical approach when responding to a call or an emergency situation with someone with autism spectrum disorder may not work.”
Officers should understand that an autistic person may flee when approached by an officer, and fail to respond to an order to stop, Cooper said. “Officers should not interpret any of these actions regarding an individual with autism as a reason for increased force.”
Officers should take time when dealing with a person with autism. They should also speak to them slowly and clearly.
Cooper was inspired to start ALERT because of the interaction between her son and a police officer. The officer happened to understand autism and helped Cooper remain calm. When asked whether his department had any autism training programs, he said no. “So I offered to train my local police agency,” Cooper said.