Police Interaction and Autism: Building Positive Relationships
Individuals with autism are significantly more likely to come into contact with law enforcement officials over the course of their life and face additional obstacles in their interactions with police. These challenges often come from a lack of awareness and understanding about autism by police. In a 2008 survey of American police officers, Scott Modell and Suzanna Mak found that 80% of police officers surveyed could not accurately identify characteristics of autism. Furthermore, many of the police officers surveyed demonstrated that they could not distinguish between different types of disabilities and had little, if any, training on disability issues. Despite this, 50% of them gave themselves a 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the most competent) that scored their ability on handling cases that involved people with disabilities. Given that up to half of people killed by police have a disability and that people with disabilities are more likely to become victims of crimes, meaning more contact with police (Modell and Mak, 2008), this is particularly concerning.
Although there is a lack of research pertaining specifically to adults with autism and their interactions with police, and even less information about the experiences of autistic adults of color, recent cases make it clear that this is an issue that we must address. In July 2016, Charles Kinsey, an African-American behavioral therapist, was shot and injured while trying to assist his client, Arnaldo Rios-Soto, a Latino autistic man, who had wandered away from his group home. The officer involved in the shooting later claimed that he was aiming for Rios-Soto, who had been playing with a toy truck, because he believed that Rios-Soto was holding a gun. Both race and autism are integral parts of this story; to prevent incidents like this from ever happening again, we must understand everything at play in these cases and recognize why some individuals are more likely to be victims of police violence. Black and Latino people with autism must contend with the intersection of racism and ableism, as Black and Latino people are significantly more likely to be targets of non-lethal police force than White people (Fryer, 2016). As shown in the case of Rios-Soto, caregivers can also be significantly impacted and housing availability for autistic adults can influence interactions with police, which is discussed by litigation director Matthew Dietz, currently working on the case.
Matthew Dietz: “To immediately assume that a person with a disability is a threat, is—may hurt somebody, is everything against what the disability community stands for, and it also makes it harder for persons with disabilities to integrate in the community. So, by having a police force that’s not specifically trained or knows where group homes are in the area really makes it a danger for any person with a disability to live in that neighborhood.”
“And with regards to Mr. Rios, our main concern is primarily to get Arnaldo to a safe home. In doing that, we’ve reached out to the Department of Justice, and we’ve urged them to start an investigation—two investigations. The first one is when a police department says, ‘We’re targeting a man with autism,’ that raises all sorts of alarms, that the police really do need training, and they need mandatory training immediately, to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
And secondly, we’ve urged the United States to come in and to look at the plans that people with disabilities—the choices people disabilities have to live in their neighborhoods. When we’re having an issue in getting Arnaldo to a safe home and we have to negotiate with the state of Florida in order to try to make one up, that’s something that not only affects Arnaldo, but it affects many other persons with autism in the community.”
Partly in response to this case, a bill is currently being pushed in the Florida House of Representatives that would mandate autism training for Florida law enforcement officers. It is clear, however, that police officers everywhere must be trained in order to ensure that this does not happen again, but there is a severe lack of existing legislation in the United States on this issue.
Focusing specifically on autism, Chown’s 2009 study of autism awareness in the UK police service outlines several strategies that could be used by police to recognize the needs of autistic people and better accommodate them, creating a positive relationship between police and people with autism. All of these strategies are founded on knowing the basics about autism; being aware of the behaviors associated with autism, recognizing the different needs people with autism may have, etc. For example, if a person with autism is being questioned, the interviewer should be aware that ambiguous questions can be confusing and lead to incorrect answers; clear, specific, and direct questions should be asked, and slang should be avoided. Police officers also must be willing to repeat and rephrase questions or directions as many times as it takes to be understood.
“…If (an officer) asks, ‘Were you with your family or John?’ the autistic person may respond ‘John’ because that was the last choice of the sequence, so the officer should ask a more specific question such as, ‘Who were you with?’ thus reducing the influence of suggestion…” (261)
Another important issue that must be taken into consideration is the tendency of some autistic people to respond to a stressful situation (in this case: contact with police), by attempting to find a safe place or engaging in a behavior that helps them feel safe. This “fright” response can be seen by the police officer as an attempt to escape, leading to an escalation of the situation. Police officers need to understand that this is an attempt by the person with autism to feel safe, not to antagonize law enforcement. Several guidelines for police are also mapped out by Debbaudt and Rothman in their 2001 article Contact with Individuals with Autism. An important point stressed is that police officers must be aware that some autistic people may be very sensitive to stimuli; police officers should not make loud noises, sudden movements, and avoid raising their voices. This extends to physically touching the person with autism; this can be a stressful experience for some people with autism, and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Although every person with autism has different needs, by accommodating for common triggers and using strategies that recognize neurodivergence, police officers can facilitate interaction and more effectively serve autistic community members. The following video, created by the Autism Society of Texas, shows how police officers and other first responders can be trained in this area.
Although the onus for a successful interaction with police should not be placed on the autistic person, there are some helpful strategies that can be utilized by people with autism, their families, and/or their caregivers. For example, carrying notecards that clearly state that the individual has autism as well as what their specific needs are can be useful in effectively and quickly informing law enforcement officials without having to worry about miscommunication. Discussing what to do in the case of contact with the police and going over what to do and say can also be beneficial. Jerry Turning, a police Lieutenant and father of a son on the autism spectrum, sets out several recommendations for caregivers of autistic adults. If possible, a local police department should be visited, so that the adult with autism can get to know local law enforcement officers and vice versa, building a positive relationship. Although this visit may be stressful, it can help facilitate any later interactions with police. In particular, during this visit, it may be possible to determine what stimuli associated with police can trigger anxiety or adverse reactions, such as flashing car lights or the sound of a police radio. Turning also emphasizes the importance of making sure that the address of the autistic individual is flagged in the local police’s database as the home of a special needs individual as well as providing information about their needs to the local police. Using these strategies, if there is ever a situation when police must be called, a strong groundwork for a positive interaction is laid because the local police will be aware of the unique needs of the individual and the individual will be familiar with the local police.
However, interactions with police can still be very stressful and novel interactions that are difficult to prepare for. A lack of training and education on autism and other disability-related issues can result in violence, especially for people of color, as shown in the case of Charles Kinsey and Arnaldo Rios-Soto. It is ultimately up to law enforcement officers to recognize the needs of all people in the communities they police, including autistic people, and take the steps necessary to make sure that they are making autistic people feel as safe and comfortable as possible. Police officers should never assume that every individual they interact with is neurotypical and will behave a certain way. Community-oriented policing can also make a significant impact; by improving the relations between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve, police officers can better get to know the needs of the community they serve and build a positive relationship with community members.
[Autism Society of Central Texas] (2016, March 13). Autism first responder training video. [Video File].
Chown, N. (2012). ‘Do you have any difficulties that I may not be aware of?’ A study of autism awareness and understanding in the UK police service. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 12(2), 256-273.
Debbaudt, D., and Rothman, D. (2001). Contact with individuals with autism. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 70:4, 20–24.
Fryer, R., Jr. (2016). An empirical analysis of racial differences in police use of force.
Modell, S. J., & Mak, S. (2008). A preliminary assessment of police officers’ knowledge and perceptions of persons with disabilities. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,46(3), 183-189.
Melber, A. and Hause, M. (2016, March 14). Half of people killed by police have a disability: Report. NBC News.
Napoleon, H., & Dietz, M. (2016, August 2). “All he has is a toy truck”: The shocking police shooting of therapist caring for autistic patient [Interview]. Democracy Now.
Sweeney, D. (2016, December 8). “Bill to require autism training for police takes on urgency after North Miami shooting.” Sun Sentinel.
Turning, J. (2012, May 14). Surviving the wandering nightmare. Autism After 16.
Turning, J. (2014, June 17). Well-informed is well-armed: Easing police response to domestic incidents. Autism After 16.
MADISON HOUSE AUTISM FOUNDATION
Prachi is currently a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is double majoring in Psychology and Gender & Women’s Studies and plans to pursue a career in clinical psychology. As someone who is deaf, Prachi is passionate about disability issues and spreading awareness of the issues that people with disabilities face.