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Responding to Autism: A Law Enforcement Approach

A few years ago, my department received an email from a citizen, in which he expressed his concerns being a parent of a child with special needs. He was specifically concerned about potential misunderstandings of his child’s behavior and lack of an appropriate law enforcement response that could lead to an unfortunate situation.

As a father of two sons with Autism, not only did I understand his concerns I also shared them. What would happen if my two worlds collided? Does law enforcement really understand Autism and to what extent? It was these questions that inspired my mission to educate as many law enforcement officers as I could, to better understand and accepting Autism.

Here is my disclaimer; it is not an expectation that law enforcement officers be able to diagnose Autism. However, there are some characteristics that may be observed during an interaction that can help a law enforcement officer to better recognize someone who may have Autism.

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the normal brain development in several areas of social interaction, communication and may manifest itself by **repetitive behaviors. Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the prevalence rate of Autism is 1 and 59 births. Just fourteen years ago the prevalence rate was 1 and 125.

While there is not one specific explanation for the dramatic increase in prevalence rate in the United States, what is clear is that this increase in numbers will also increase the frequency in which children and adults with Autism are encountering law enforcement. Many of these encounters have recently made national news. Some of these encounters have put officers and citizens at risk and exposed departments to civil liability.

One such incident occurred in my home state of Illinois. On August 13, 2017 Ricardo Hayes was shot by an off-duty Chicago Police Sergeant. Hayes was observed walking down the street acting suspiciously. The off-duty sergeant began chasing Hayes in his vehicle. Hayes, who was 19 years old and is developmentally and intellectually disabled, had a history of wandering from his residence. This was the case on the night of August 13, 2017. Surveillance cameras show Hayes standing in front of a residence when he is shot by the off-duty sergeant. In the press release by the Chicago Police Department it described Hayes as elusive and unresponsive, common characteristics of an individual with Autism. At this time the incident is being investigated by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and the sergeant has been stripped of his police powers. Hayes suffered non-life threatening injuries. A lawsuit has been filed against the sergeant and the City of Chicago.

This is just one of several incidents that have made national news. Many of these incidents could have been prevented had the officers been able to recognize some behaviors associated with Autism. This reinforces why law enforcement agencies need training in the recognition and strategies in dealing with individuals with Autism.

Individuals with Autism are seven times more likely to encounter law enforcement than neurotypical peers. Characteristics of Autism may appear suspicious or threatening to a trained police officer. Characteristics may include lack of eye contact, odd mannerisms and lack of verbal communication that may lead a police officer to believe that the person is being deceitful or uncooperative. The mere presence of an officer in uniform may hold little to no significance to a person with Autism. Compiling some of these factors together during an encounter can potentially create a recipe for disaster.

An essential component of training law enforcement officers must begin with being able to recognize Autism. Since many of the behaviors associated with Autism may be perceived as “red flags” to law enforcement, the ability to recognize this is critical. Autism is considered a “hidden disability”, meaning that you cannot always identify a person with Autism through physical characteristics or distinguishing facial features. Autism is characterized by impaired social interaction, difficulty in communication and restrictive/repetitive activities. These repetitive mannerisms are called “stims” or “stimming”. These mannerisms may include (but are not limited to) hand flapping, spinning, repetitive vocalization or a fixation on a preferred item.

Individuals with Autism can be dramatically affected in the area offunctional communication. During an interaction they may appear deaf and may not respond to anything that is being said. Some individuals may be able to communicate but suffer from a processing delay which means that it could take 10-15 seconds for them to respond. Likewise some individuals may automatically repeat what is said to them. This is a term called Echolalia and it is the meaningless repetition of another’s spoken words. Individuals may also “script” words they have overheard from a movie or song and use them in place of expressive language.

Sensory issues are also common and people with Autism can be overwhelmed by their environment. Some environmental factors such as bright lights, loud noises or strong odors can have an adverse effect on a person with Autism. This sensory overload may lead to a meltdown or eloping. During a “meltdown” a person with Autism may become self-injurious or become aggressive towards others. A person with Autism may try to flee the overwhelming environment by eloping.

Once identified, interacting with someone with Autism can be a challenge for even the most experienced veteran police officer. Police Departments across the country need to start securing Autism training and establishing positive relationships with the Autism community. By adopting a proactive approach, Police Departments can help keep this vulnerable population safe, have more positive interactions and help keep themselves and their respective departments safe from possible civil liability.

Barta, B. (2018). Autism and the Law Enforcement Response. FBI-LEEDA lnsighter, Fall 2018(4), pp.7-10.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Autism Spectrum Disorder. [online] Available at: [Accessed 31 Dec. 2018].

De Mar, C .. (2018). Video Shows Off Duty Chicago Police Sergeant Shooting Teenager Ricardo Hayes. [online] CBS Chicago. Available at: icago-po I ice-se rgea nt-kh a Ii 1-m u ham mad-shooting-u n armed-teen age r-rica rd o-h ayes/ [Accessed 31 Dec.2018].

Lacey, C. (2008). Autism and Law Enforcement: Why it matters. Wisconsin Police Journal, 76(8), pp.13-18.