Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), refers to a group of complex neurodevelopment disorders that is characterized by repetitive behavior(s), impaired communication and social interaction abilities. Each individual is affected differently. Some persons with ASD are fully able to perform all activities of daily living while others require substantial support.1 According to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 54 children (2.21%) and 1 in 45 Adults (1.85%) have ASD. 2
An 18-month study of 284 children with autism found that 16% of the participants had an encounter with the police during the period. While verbally or physically aggressive behaviors were the primary reason for police involvement, most of the interactions did not result in the individual being arrested. Almost half (49%) of the individuals’ parents reported officers had a calming affect on the individual or no effect (17%) at all. Approximately one-third of the encounters, the individual experienced an increased level of agitation. Parents reported being satisfied to very satisfied with the police officers’ encounters with the individuals 68% of the time.
Another study reported that up to 68% of persons with ASD will display aggressive behaviors at some time. Because of this, it is important for officers to have an awareness of the common indicators of individuals with ASD and how to interact with them. Agencies are encouraged to ensure first responders are provided training on responding to persons who have Autism. This should include how to recognize the behavior, appropriate responses, and familiarization of the different alert systems the agency may use to ensure they have a positive interaction and outcome. While agencies may achieve this through in-service training, Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) provides officers with the awareness to identify an issue, skills to de-escalate the incident, and resources to refer individuals to other resources.
To better prepare officers for encounters and increase the likelihood of a positive interaction, some agencies have implemented processes to alert officers they may be encountering a person with ASD. Some have created ‘vulnerable person registries’ or alerts in their Emergency Communication Center (ECC) databases that include the individual’s name, address, and other identifying information along with unique characteristics and triggers for individuals with autism. In other cases, persons with ASD are provided cards to give officers identifying them has having autism.
Another creative approach many agencies are now using are Autism alert decals. Designed by a police officer, Autism alert decals are the shape of a multi-colored hand. While the decal may be blank, some contain ‘buzz words’ imprinted on the palm to alert first responders of behaviors the Autistic person in crisis may exhibit. The words are reflective to ensure they are visible at night.
When recommending the use of the decals, agencies should encourage they be placed on the rear window of their car and at entrances officers are most likely to use when they approach the residence.
First responders are encountering persons with ASD with increased frequency. Understanding the disorder, how it affects persons differently, and the best techniques to interact with persons in crisis are critical for a having a positive interaction. Agencies should also consider working with the community to improve their services by implementing processes to ensure first responders are alerted to individuals’ needs, through vulnerable person registries and Autism alert decals.
ECHOlalia – These persons have a tendency to repeat words/phrases rather than responding correctly.
HYPERSENSITIVE – Can be overstimulated by touch, lights or sounds. Officers should be careful when touching persons. In other cases they may be agitated by emergency equipment so officers consider turning them off when it is safe.
B/O (Blackouts) or VIOLENT – The person can become violent, not knowing it is happening, and have no recollection that it happened once the episode is over.
HARMS – The individual has a tendency to cause pain to themselves when over-stimulated.
FLIGHT – The person tends to flee. This can occur randomly or when overly stimulated.
NON-VERBAL – The person does not communicate. First Responders should recognize the person is not being defiant and their not speaking is a characteristic behavior for them.
Decals can be purchased for $6 from ProjectWhimsical2019@gmail.com
1 National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Strokes, https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Fact-Sheet, Accessed 9/6/2020.
2 Autism Speaks, https://www.autismspeaks.org/science-news/cdc-estimates-22-percent-adults-us-have-autism#:~:text=The%20Centers%20for%20Disease%20Control,2.21%20percent%2C%20of%20U.S.%20adults. Accessed 9/6/2020
3 Ami Tin, Anna M. Palucka, Elspeth Bradley, Jonathan A. Weiss, Yona Lunsky, “Correlates of Police Involvement Among Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder”, Journal of Autism Development Disorder, Volume 47: 2639 -2647, (2017).
4 Lecavalier, L., “Behavioral and Emotional Problems in Young People with Pervasive Developmental Disorders: Relative Prevalence, Effects of Subject Characteristics, and Empirical Classification, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Volume 36: 1101 – 1114, (2006)