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What Police Officers Need to Know About Approaching a Person with Autism

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Whether the disorder has become more common or has simply become more commonly reported, autism is becoming a major public health concern in the U.S. The National Institutes of Health estimates that one out of every 88 children born in the U.S. has autism. For future police officers and other public safety officials graduating with a degree in criminal justice, how to approach and communicate with an autistic person should become a required part of the curriculum.

An FBI method developed from the State of Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions curriculum can help officers when they approach a person who has autism. After learning the signs and symptoms of autism, officers can quickly identify an autistic individual and diffuse any situations that might otherwise escalate and result in injury or misunderstanding.

How to Identify a Person with Autism

At first glance, a person with autism may not look any different from anyone else. However, close observation and engaging the person in conversation may reveal these common signs of autism:

  • Poor communication. People with autism often avoid eye contact, even when an officer moves to place himself or herself in the individual’s line of sight. The person may speak in a monotone, repeat exactly what the officer says, communicate with gestures and pointing, or be completely nonverbal. Additionally, the person may not respond to sounds or verbal commands.
  • Unusual physical tics. Often, people with autism lick their fingers, flap their hands, or twirl objects in a repetitive fashion. They may pace or rock back and forth, and they may run on tiptoes or with a pigeon-toed gait.
  • Unaware of social cues. In some situations, a person with autism may not recognize the significance of a person in a police uniform. He or she also may not be able to understand body language or recognize an authoritative presence.
  • Strange dress. For example, a person with autism may wear shorts and a T-shirt in cold weather.
  • Ignores pain. An autistic person who is visibly injured may not show signs of pain and may not ask for help.

Police officers can also check for medical alert bracelets or written literature on the subject’s person. These materials may provide information stating that the person has autism.

How to Respond to Subjects with Autism

The FBI has developed a methodology using the acronym “AUTISM” to help officers understand exactly how to approach an autistic person.

  • Approach the person in a non-threatening manner. Avoid quick motions and gestures that may appear threatening to an autistic person. People with autism are often very sensitive to stimuli that most people consider normal.
  • Understand that touch can be perceived as threatening. Avoid touching a person with autism on the shoulders or near the face. These touches or even mere invasions of personal space could trigger a “fight-or-flight” reaction.
  • Talk in a calm tone of voice. If the autistic person appears to ignore questions or commands, then an officer may feel frustrated and be tempted to speak more loudly and forcefully. However, a loud tone of voice can frighten a person with autism. Repeat questions or directions multiple times if needed, and stay calm.
  • Instruct the person in a simple and direct way. A person with autism takes verbal commands and expressions very literally. If an officer yells, “Do you think that’s cool?” at the autistic person, the person may not know how to respond. Keep instructions direct and easy to understand. Instead of saying, “Up against the wall,” just tell the person to “stand up.”
  • Seek all indicators as the situation progresses. Officers should take their time and patiently assess the situation. Keep looking for signs of autism before escalating or becoming angry.
  • Maintain a safe distance. If the autistic person starts screaming or thrashing around, then officers should keep their distance. However, they should continue to carefully watch the person and take steps to prevent escape without exposing themselves to harm.

If an autistic person may have committed a crime, then separate that person from the general prison population until a mental health professional can make an evaluation. If in doubt, contact the prosecutor’s office for instructions. Good observational skills and patient approaches can save officers from civil litigation and other complications down the road.

About the Author

Tricia Gallagher works as a psychologist and an advocate for children with autism. She provides workshops for people in a number of professions to make them more aware of how to respond to people with autism.

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Recovering The Self is a forum for people to tell their stories. Individual contributors accept complete responsibility for the veracity, accuracy, and non-infringement of their reporting.
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