Law enforcement’s efforts at greater autism awareness

police smiling in front of a police station

Too much injustice. Too much needless violence and tragedy. Too many instances of challenging though innocent behaviors of autistic individuals being misconstrued as dangerous. Not enough understanding. Thankfully, something is being done about this.

Tear-jerking stories like those of Reginald “Neli” Latson, Linden Cameron, Stephan Watts and others on the autism spectrum who have been victimized by police brutality underscore the need for greater connectivity and communication between the law enforcement and spectrum communities. For some time now, many police departments across the country, with the help of organizations that support and advocate for autistic people, are stepping up to affect change with the goal of minimizing unfortunate outcomes. Folks with autism who live in the communities that are served by these police departments are also rising to the occasion by helping to educate officers about themselves while learning about the work that the police do. These kinds of interactions have been meaningful and substantive and have led to positive results.         

The more information police have, the easier it is for them to respond accordingly to a crisis. Because autistic individuals process information differently than do non-autistic individuals, it is critically important that law enforcement professionals know about the unique risks involved and their options as to how to best address these risks. When properly trained, officers learn that when they are dealing with autistic folks, they need to handle the situation differently than they otherwise would.

In response to the need for greater awareness, autistic individuals, autism resource centers (ARCs), other organizations that serve the spectrum community and police departments are working together to foster a deeper understanding of autism spectrum disorders among public safety and law enforcement personnel. Training is available through some of these ARCs, one goal of which is to provide additional tools for police officers to use in assessing a situation and whether an autistic individual may be involved.

The ARC of South Norfolk, Massachusetts’ ALEC (Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition) Program is one such training program. The presenters for this program’s classes are first responders with direct, personal knowledge of autism spectrum disorders through a family member. Their Autism 101 training class addresses the question “what is autism?”. It covers the associated behaviors and characteristics, suggestions as to how officers should respond to these and crisis avoidance. The police officer training covers a real-life scenario in which a local store manager reports a teenager acting erratically, rocking, flapping her hands and echoing the clerk’s words. The questions that are raised include “is she on drugs?”, “is she in trouble?” and “how can you determine if an autism spectrum disorder is in play?”

BE SAFE is a training curriculum and a movie intended to teach police and people on the autism spectrum about each other. One of BE SAFE’s goals is to help people with autism and other learning differences acquire the skills necessary to safely interact with the police. Trainings involve interactive sessions between officers and autistic individuals, cultivating mutual understanding, discovery, greater patience, new strategies and new knowledge.

Officers learn, through practical, hands-on exercises and activities, how to accommodate people with social communication challenges and what it is like to be autistic. Consequently, the officers build confidence as to how to properly communicate with neurodiverse individuals. Officers teach autistic youth about following instructions, safety skills and asking for help. They re-enact scenarios in which an individual is detained, demonstrating what to do and what not to do (touching an officer’s taser or gun, for example) during an encounter with police. As a result, connections are forged within the community and the possibility of misunderstanding, injustice or tragedy during volatile situations is greatly reduced.

BE SAFE The Movie is watched by pairs of officers and autistic people participating in the training program. The autistic trainees are able to visualize positive outcomes of interactions with the police which involve safe words and actions. In one scene, hand cuffs are used on an autistic individual as he is peacefully guided into the police car, remaining perfectly calm the entire time. Quite a contrast, isn’t it, between this scenario and what happened to Neli Latson, Linden Cameron, Stephan Watts and so many others whose motives were so gravely misunderstood.

No two people on the autism spectrum have identical personality profiles. In fact, the set of challenges that one autistic person confronts may be the polar opposite of what another autistic individual confronts. Nonetheless, there are several behaviors which are relatively commonplace among spectrum folks and which programs like ALEC and BE SAFE teach police to look for while assessing whether a given situation may involve somebody on the autism spectrum. 

For example, because of differences in how information is processed, certain commands from officers may not elicit an immediate response. I can personally attest to this tendency in particular. It may take two, three or more times for a verbal statement to sink in, much less be responded to, depending upon the content of the statement and how it is said, whether I am preoccupied with something else, whether I am feeling overwhelmed by too much “brain noise” or because I have always tended to be slower in responding to my surroundings. Repetitive behaviors, body movements and speech are revealing indications, as are sensitivity to light and sound (which often lead to an autistic person making unusual sounds) and limited or no eye contact.

If, based on these and other signs, there is reason to believe that a crisis may involve an autistic individual, a positive outcome is more likely if the officer(s) slows things down, speaks and acts calmly, gives the individual space, exercises patience, uses simple, concrete sentences, asks questions and refrains from physical contact (including those gestures that are typically considered to be calming techniques). It all comes down to understanding that spectrum folks are neurologically different, and therefore psychologically and behaviorally different, relative to their non-autistic peers. As such, a different approach to interactions between police and those on the spectrum is essential. As somebody with an autism profile, it is heartening to see substantial efforts being made by both communities to make it happen.

Nonetheless, too many police officers remain untrained, due in part to the reality that laws requiring training around autism spectrum disorders do not yet exist in all 50 states. And the rate of diagnosis continues to accelerate. No doubt, more of this work is critically important, not only to those of us on the spectrum and the people who love and care about us, but also to law enforcement which I would imagine is hungry for redemption in the eyes of many in the court of public opinion. Being front and center to a racial reckoning the likes of which has arguably not been seen in this country since 1968 has not helped the image that groups of people who have been marginalized in society hold of the police. A widespread proliferation of collaborations between police departments and the autistic individuals in the communities they serve as well as the level of media coverage which such collaborative efforts would deserve could and should improve the perception that many have of law enforcement in America. It is all too easy to focus exclusively on that which is toxic, unjust and anger-provoking, though credit should be granted where it is due.

Sam Farmer wears many hats, among these father, husband, musician, computer consultant, and autism spectrum community contributor. Diagnosed later in life with Asperger’s Syndrome, he writes blogs and articles, records coaching videos, and presents at conferences, sharing stories, ideas, and insights as to how one can achieve greater happiness and success in life despite facing challenges and adversity that often interfere in these pursuits. To learn more, visit samfarmerauthor.com.

“A Long Walk Down a Winding Road: Small Steps, Challenges, & Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens” is available on Amazon and can be purchased at all major booksellers.