Autistic people face more danger than most when they interact with police. In the eyes of an officer, some autistic people behave in ways that look suspicious. And from an autistic person’s view, an encounter with the police can be overstimulating and stressful. Without proper training and awareness by police officers, this combination can be a ticking time bomb.
Some police organizations are improving their training on autism. Their focus is to better identify and support someone they believe might be autistic. With this approach, police interactions can and should look different in the future.
The sad fact is that 1 in 5 autistic people have had a police interaction by the time they are 21 years old. There is no evidence that autistic people are more prone to violence. But when these encounters go wrong, they can become dangerous.
So why so much police contact for this population? Some traits of autism draw attention from police officers, and not in a good way. Autistic people often avoid eye contact or responding directly to questions. Some may do self-stimulating behaviors like repetitive sounds or movements, also called “stimming.”
To a police officer with little to no training on these behaviors, an autistic person can look like a threat. They may appear like they are hiding evidence of a crime or may become aggressive.
The list below shows a few things that may make these encounters more likely:
Being a boy or young man
Difficulty managing anger and frustration
Lower family income (can lead to more family stressors)
History of hospitalization for psychiatric issues
So what’s the way forward? Police and autistic people can reduce these dangerous interactions in several ways. With better education, training, and cooperation, contact with the police can be safer and more positive for everyone.
Information and sensory overload can increase stress for an autistic person. Typical police interactions often have flashing lights, quick movements, and loud noises. When police can adjust the situation to be less stressful, they can prevent a bad outcome.
Some things a police officer should always practice because they never know if they are approaching an autistic person.
Take a calm and quiet approach to show they are no threat.
Move slowly to avoid creating extra distractions or stimulation.
Take their time to prevent the person from getting overwhelmed.
Reduce noise and turn off flashing lights.
Make the situation feel quiet and safe.
Use visual aids to explain and communicate.
Be as non-invasive as possible when checking for injuries.
Ask questions that are clear, short, and only focus on one thing at a time.
Be aware that an autistic person may move into your personal space.
The reason behind these changes is clear - safety. Autistic people are a vulnerable population. Autism is now estimated to affect 1 in every 54 people, and 20% under the age of 21 become involved with the police. Up to half of the people killed by police have a disability. This is too common to be ignored.
Police already have more encounters with autistic people than they realize, and some don’t end well. Much of this can be prevented with training and education. As police and autistic people partner with each other, they can learn more about how to communicate safely.
Training for police is inadequate. If officers learn how to identify a possibly autistic person, they can change the narrative. When they stop and consider, “Maybe this person is autistic,” the chances of a safe outcome go up.
As police officers become better educated about autistic people, outcomes that are more positive are likely. This kind of change doesn’t happen overnight, but it is needed. Police precincts and autism supporters can work together to make safety and sensitivity a top priority.