Dennis Debbaudt 2016
Law enforcement professionals may unexpectedly interact with or be asked to find a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Recognizing the behavioral symptoms and knowing contact approaches can minimize situations of risk. You may learn the person has ASD from 911 dispatch, family member or someone at the scene, or the person himself or herself.
The following are 25 field response tips for officers:
1. Make sure the person is unarmed and maintain a safe distance because they may suddenly invade your personal space.
2. Talk calmly and softly.
3. Speak in direct, short phrases such as: “Stand up now.” or “Get in the car.”
4. Avoid slang expressions, such as: “What’s up your sleeve?” or “Are you pulling my leg?”
5. Allow for delayed responses (10-15 seconds) to your questions or commands.
6. Repeat or rephrase questions.
7. Consider use of pictures, written phrases/commands, sign language or computer images.
8. Use low gestures for attention; avoid rapid pointing or waving.
9. Examine for presence of medical alert jewelry or tags, or an autism handout card.
10. Model calming body language (such as slow breathing and keeping hands low).
11. Model the behavior you want the person to display.
12. A person with autism may not react well to changes in routine or the presence of strangers, even a uniformed responder.
13. Officers should not interpret the person’s failure to respond to orders or questions as a lack of cooperation or a reason for increased force.
14. Seek information and assistance from parent or others at the scene about how to communicate with and de-escalate the person’s behavior.
15. Avoid stopping repetitive behaviors unless there is risk of injury to yourself or others.
16. If the individual is holding and appears to be fascinated with an inanimate object, consider allowing subject to hold the item for the calming effect (if officer safety is not jeopardized by doing so).
17. Evaluate for injury: person may not ask for help or show any indications of pain, even though injury seems apparent.
18. Be aware that the person may be having a seizure.
19. Be aware of person’s self-protective responses and sensitivities to lights, sounds, touches, orders, and animals - canine or mounted patrol.
20. If possible, turn off sirens and flashing lights and remove canine partners, crowds, or other sensory stimulation from the scene
21. If person’s behavior escalates, use geographic containment and maintain a safe distance until any inappropriate behaviors lessen
22. Remain alert to the possibility of outbursts or impulsive acts
23. Use your discretion. If you have determined that the person is unarmed and have established geographic containment, use all available time to allow the person to deescalate themselves without your intervention.
24. If in custody, alert jail authorities. The person would be at risk in general prison population.
25. REMEMBER: Each individual with autism is unique and may act or react differently. PLEASE contact a professional who is familiar with autism. (Debbaudt & Legacy, 2005)
Autism & Law Enforcement Contacts:
Autism is America’s fastest growing developmental disability. Autism is estimated to affect as many as one in every 68 children (CDC- NCBDDD, 2012). Research indicates that people, who have developmental disabilities, including autism, will have up to seven times more contacts with police than a member of the general public (Curry et al, 1993).
Children and adults with autism now live, work, go to school and recreate in the community. Law enforcement professionals will have field interactions with children and adults with autism, their parents and care providers.
People with autism are as different from each other as we all are. They may inherently present autism spectrum-based behaviors and characteristics in different combinations and degrees.
Each person will have a different level of independence as well. Some persons with autism will have a caregiver with them at all times. Others will live semi or fully independent lives. Both may have public safety or criminal justice contacts. In most cases, the person will have difficulties following your verbal commands, reading your body language, and will have deficits in social understanding. As with many Alzheimer’s patients, less independent children and adults with autism may wander away from care and into danger.
Whether as offender or victim-witness, persons on the autism spectrum will present dilemmas in the interview and interrogation room. Their concrete answers, conceptions, and reactions to even the most standard interrogation techniques can cause confusion for even the best trained, seasoned veterans. Autism-specific training can help criminal justice professionals save time and resources and avoid taking misleading statements or false confessions.
© Dennis Debbaudt 2004-16 All Rights Reserved
For direct training, curriculum and video development, contact:
Dennis Debbaudt at 772-398-9756 (son with autism may answer phone) email firstname.lastname@example.org web: autismriskmanagement.com and debbaudtlegacy.com
Center for Disease Control and Prevention/National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities Web Site. Accessed March, http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
Curry, K., Posluszny, M. and Draska, S. (1993) Training Criminal Justice Personnel to Recognize Offenders with Disabilities. Washington, DC: Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services News In Print.
Debbaudt, D. and Rothman, D. (2001) Contact With Individuals With Autism: Effective Resolutions.FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 7, 4, 20-24.
Debbaudt, D. (2002) Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Debbaudt, D. (2003) Safety Issues for Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome. In Liane Holliday Willey (ed) Asperger Syndrome in Adolescence: Living with the Ups, the Downs and Things in Between. London-Philadelphia. Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Debbaudt, D.Autism: Managing Police Field Contacts, International Association of Chiefs of Police, June, 2013.
Debbaudt D. and Legacy, D. (2004) Autism & Law Enforcement Roll Call Briefing
Debbaudt D. and Legacy, D. (2009) Autism, Fire-Rescue and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Debbaudt D. and Legacy, D. (2009) Autism in the Criminal Justice System on behalf of the State of North Carolina