How better understanding can support better outcomes in police interactions with autistics
People with autism who have communication differences or behavior challenges often use supports or learn skills that allow them to go to school, get work or live independently. But when interacting with police, a lack of supports and understanding of unique challenges associated with autism can leave some autistic people unable to fully participate in these interactions.
Some law enforcement data have suggested that people with disabilities are seven times more likely to have police encounters than the general population. A 2019 study of autistic adults with few support needs found 53 percent of participants had four or more interactions with the police in their lifetime. Many respondents said they had negative experiences, based primarily on lack of understanding of autism by the officer, according to respondents.
While police officers are out in the community doing their best to protect and serve, researchers suggest that both autistic people and officers need to be better prepared for these interactions to improve safety for everyone.
Common attributes of autism are communication differences and behaviors or thinking that are repetitive or restricted to an area of interest. These traits, which differ for every autistic person, may make it difficult to have a conversation with a police officer, who could interpret these traits as not being compliant with questioning or direct instructions. Research suggests that police need to be trained to appropriately engage with autistic people.
One study points to communication as a major barrier for people with autism and police officers, whether the person with autism is a witness or a victim. Autistic individuals often aren’t treated as credible because of communication barriers and issues with memory.
Behavior challenges present another potential obstacle to productive interactions with police. A 2016 study found that nearly 20 percent of autistic teens and adults surveyed had an interaction with the police by age 21, and a year later, similar findings suggested that aggressive behaviors were the primary reason for police getting involved.
Under stress, behavior challenges can worsen or trigger what is commonly called a meltdown, which is an intense reaction caused by a person feeling overwhelmed, usually as a way to express these emotions.
Withdrawal is a common meltdown-type reaction to stress and fear. Meltdowns can also cause someone to become nonspeaking, have an emotional outburst such as crying, or exhibit other atypical behaviors. Direct questioning from an authority figure could for some people trigger stress that worsens their behavior and communication challenges.
Advocates contend that training in autism and supportive interactions could help improve understanding and prevent situations from escalating. A study this year found that officers who had more knowledge about autism felt they were better equipped to handle interactions with autistic people. Autism Speaks is dedicating diversity, equity, access and inclusion resources to outline more ways to improve interactions where autism and police intersect.
Research into autism and police interactions is a growing field. Some studies have found the confidence of police officers when working with the autism community is beneficial to training initiatives. They also found that the welfare of autistic people is dependent on the knowledge of the person who is helping them.
Similar findings from a study in 2018 measured what criminal justice students knew about autism. These findings suggest that the more experience a police officer had with autistic individuals, the better their knowledge was on autism characteristics.
Kirsten Railey, a researcher focusing on autism and criminal justice, said a recent study she conducted found that it wasn’t just autistic adults and families who realized the potential for miscommunication. Officers themselves also recognized the potential to misinterpret autistic behaviors as drug or alcohol intoxication.
“Programs that emphasize active learning and interactions between police officers and autistic individuals as compared to lecture-only training,” Railey said, “are most likely to make an impact on officers’ learning and change their behavior during interactions with autistic individuals.”
Getting It Right
Police training varies widely by jurisdiction. Most include a mental health training as part of basic training or regular continuing education for officers, but each state uses different programs and trainings do not necessarily address autism specifically.
To address this, two police stations in Illinois have implemented a new creative approach to training police officers. In 2019, the Chicago Police Department, the second-largest department in the country, participated in an empathy training for people with autism using virtual reality tools.
In New Jersey, where state autism prevalence at is far higher than the national average, police officers are required to receive training on developmental disabilities every three years. In Eatontown Township in Monmouth County, the police department goes further, requiring this training annually. The training strategies in this department cover de-escalation and arresting an autistic person as the last resort.
To help those in need during a crisis, many counties in New Jersey use a registry for people with special needs to ensure safety for those who need assistance. Monmouth County began participating in 2016 for people who have physical or mental disabilities.
Eatontown Township police Capt. Theresa Healy and Lt. Anthony Guido said their in-depth department-level training and the county registry have improved safety in their community, which includes several schools for students with developmental disabilities.
Since the registry was instituted in 2016, Capt. Healy said the department’s focus has been on reducing arrests of autistic community members. Lt. Guido cited an example of an officer who spent 45 minutes with someone to try and help them calm down. Lt. Guido referred to this act of going above and beyond to help someone in need as a common occurrence with the police offers at the Eatontown Police Department.
Capt. Healy also credits communication as a reason why their department is successful.
After taking a two-day course on training with autism, she shared what she learned about the risks of bodies of water with the rest of the department. The leading cause of death among people with autism who wander is drowning. Monmouth County has 27 miles of Atlantic coastline and 26 miles of shoreline along Raritan Bay. Eatontown is less than 10 minutes from the shoreline.
“If someone goes to a training, we will bring that back and share it with all our officers just because it’s best for everyone to be on the same page and handle it all the same way,” Healy said.
While there is no one standard across the country, one of the most well-known is Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) curriculum, developed by behavioral health experts to reduce police and civilian injuries and teach participants how to properly handle a situation that may be dangerous for both parties when someone is in crisis.
While research into CIT has found that trained officers report they are less likely to use force and feel confident in their ability to de-escalate situations, there is little to no evidence about the effectiveness of any police training to reduce arrests, use of force or other outcomes for autistic people in the community.
“The research is quite limited when it comes to studying the effectiveness of police training, Railey said. “Only a handful of studies have investigated this topic, and they have barely scratched the surface related to what needs to be addressed to ensure the programs are more effective.”
Research is also limited on how other factors, such as race or gender, affect police interactions with the autism community. A survey led by Lindsay Shea at the Policy and Analytics Center at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, may reveal more insights about how race and autism intersect with the criminal justice system. The survey will launch January 11 and initial results are expected later in the year.
Several studies this year concluded that future research should explore behavioral change and outcomes so that law enforcement and communities can make more informed decisions around the programs they need to improve community safety. Randomized, controlled studies are critical to knowing which programs work and why, Railey said.
Meanwhile, some communities are testing other ways to improve engagement between law enforcement and autistic adults.
Parents of Autistic Children, a New Jersey non-profit, has trained more than 72,000 first responders and law enforcement officers with its Autism Shield program.
“The goal is to create and encourage communities which are safer and more welcoming to all individuals with autism throughout the autism spectrum,” said founder Gary Weitzen.
Eatontown was also one of five agencies in the county that piloted a program called Growth Through Opportunity, a 16-week internship that pairs autistic adults with first responders to learn about the criminal justice system as a career option.
Travis Akins, a law enforcement officer, was inspired to develop the program by his autistic son, who wanted to become a police officer just like his dad. Eatontown’s first cadet in the program, Nick, was hired after completing his internship.
“Nick teaches me more than I could ever teach him,” Capt. Healy said.
More work is needed to help law enforcement best protect and serve the autism community.
While models like Eatontown can help demonstrate the impact of training on the local level, even communities without formal programs can benefit when families and their local first responders connect with each other.
“Reach out to your local law enforcement agency, meet with them, let them know, 'Hey, this is what we have going on,’” Healy suggested. "I think it helps for a seamless experience if there ever has to be a time where there is an interaction.”