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Interacting with Law Enforcement

While out in the community, individuals with autism may find themselves in situations in which they need to talk to or deal with law enforcement professionals. These officers may not have knowledge or prior training on how to deal effectively with individuals with autism. As a result, it is essential to teach our loved ones how to interact with law enforcement professionals in safe and productive ways. The information below from autism safety expert Dennis Debbaudt provides tips to teach your loved ones the best way to interact with law enforcement.

"Persons with autism who are able to navigate the community without assistance should strongly consider developing personal handouts, along with the skills and resiliency to risk necessary to appropriately disclose their need for accommodations. Remember that the initial uninformed contact with police presents the highest potential for a negative outcome.

What can and should the individual with autism expect during sudden or even expected interactions with law enforcement, customs and immigration employees, first responders such as fire rescue personnel, paramedics, hospital emergency room professionals, or other security professionals?

With few exceptions, law enforcement officers and other first responders will have had little or no training about how to recognize, communicate and respond well when interacting with individuals on the spectrum during field contacts. There may be little understanding of the significance of the words Asperger Syndrome (AS), or autism when they hear them.

You can expect a higher level of scrutiny from law enforcement and security personnel when traveling in the 21st century community. Expect public or private scrutiny at:

  • Airports
  • Security checkpoints such as government buildings, schools and other secured facilities
  • Drive-up or walk-up guard shacks
  • Building entrances
  • Campuses
  • Shopping malls or districts
  • In these days of heightened security? Anywhere!

So what are the best options for the individual during a sudden interaction with a law enforcement officer during an emergency or non-emergency situation? Should you disclose your autism or Asperger Syndrome? When? To whom?

Disclosure Tools and Options

What's the best tool to use when you decide to disclose your autism or Asperger Syndrome to a police officer? A handout card.

  • Develop a handout card that can be easily copied and laminated.
  • Remember that the handout card is replaceable. You can give it away to the officer on the scene.
  • Carry several at all times.
  • The handout card can be generic or specific to you.
  • Work with an autism support organization to develop a generic handout.
  • Work with persons whose opinions you trust and value to develop a person-specific handout.

What's the best way to tell the officer that you have a handout?

  • Avoid making sudden movements to reach for the handout card.
  • Obtain permission or signal your intentions before reaching into your coat or pants pockets, briefcases or bags, or in to glove compartments of vehicles.
  • Verbally let the officer know that you have autism or Asperger Syndrome and have an information card for them to read. If nonverbal, or if sudden interactions render you nonverbal or mute, consider using a medical alert bracelet for an officer to read that alerts them to your condition and the fact that you have an information card.

Disclosure to a Police Officer 

The decision to disclose your diagnosis to a police officer will always be yours to make. If you have learned through experience that disclosure would be helpful in the particular situation, you may decide to disclose to a police officer.

Law enforcement officers report that they make their best decisions when they have their best information. A good, strong autism or Asperger Syndrome diagnosis disclosure that includes the use of an information card, contact information for an objective professional, and proof of diagnosis should be considered (Debbaudt, 2006 b). 

Plan and Practice Disclosure Techniques

Plan your response and practice with others for a sudden encounter. They will happen to all of us. Careful preparation is your best chance to have a successful interaction with law enforcement.

  • Discuss these risks with people that you trust.
  • Develop a hard person-specific disclosure handout.
  • Develop a personal plan as to how you will use the handout.
  • Practice through role playing with people you know and trust.
  • Adapt and amend disclosure handouts. They are only paper. They are not written in stone.

Further Suggestions to Consider During Sudden Interactions with Police

  • Do not attempt to flee.
  • Do not make sudden movements.
  • Try to remain calm.
  • If you are a victim or are reporting a crime, you may want the police to contact a family member, advocate or friend who can help you through the interview process.
  • Carry the phone number of an advocacy organization or personal advocate, relative or friend (Debbaudt, 2006 b).

Author Dennis Debbaudt is the parent of a young man who has autism, an author, law enforcement trainer and producer of autism-related videos and curriculum for law enforcement agencies. His materials are in use by law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. Dennis can be reached via his website www.autismriskmanagement.com, by email atddpi@flash.net or by calling 772-398-9756.