An increasingly important factor in understanding people with autism is knowing how to interpret the signals of a person on the spectrum. This is especially important when it comes to law enforcement. People on the autism spectrum may show behaviors that unintentionally look suspicious to a police officer, which prompts the officer to misunderstand and mishandle the situation. It is a reality that could and should be addressed because people on the spectrum could get in legal trouble just because a police officer is unaware of the person’s diagnosis. Fortunately, many police departments are receiving autism awareness training in order to decrease the number of autistic people unfairly treated by law enforcement.
According to madisonhouseautism.org, a study of police officers within the United States conducted in 2008 found that 80% of officers could not correctly point out the behaviors of a person on the autism spectrum. However, over the years, there has been some progress made. According to an article by CNN from 2016, there is a non-profit organization based in Richmond, Virginia called Commonwealth Autism. This organization trains personnel from law enforcement to the medical field and from the legal system on how to properly handle interactions with autistic people. Commonwealth Autism also provides training for new instructors, which makes it easier for agencies with smaller budgets to talk to their co-workers about the training, and is hoping to include online training for easier accessibility to first responders on the spot.
The specifics of this training include learning about the different types of behaviors that a person with autism may show, such as the common symptoms of restricted and repetitive actions and how to appropriately respond to seeing that. The trainees talk about what they might see the autistic person doing, such as wandering around, not making direct eye contact, violence and other related things which could be perceived as a crime. This training is very beneficial to both the police and people with autism because it goes a long way in resolving misunderstandings and not allowing the misunderstandings to become worse. In 2015, the Lynchburg Police Department in Virginia was the first to train its entire department, from the office staff to the Police Chief, in autism awareness. According to the director of the autism response team at Autism Speaks, Lindsay Naeder, “Autism is sometimes referred to as an invisible disability and people with autism are in every single community.”
According to medicalxpress.com, there is a $1.7 million dollar study funded by the federal government that is giving autistic people the opportunity to participate in a virtual reality program that allows them to test how they would act in a scenario with a police officer. This virtual reality program was created by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research (CAR) in conjunction with a virtual reality system called Floreo, and it is assessing if virtual reality is useful in helping autistic people interact with police officers in real life. The program shows people with autism a situation where they are questioned by an officer and how to respond verbally, keeping in mind that people on the spectrum may struggle with using their words. According to a lead researcher with the study named Joseph McCleery, “A virtual interaction is a really useful tool because people on the spectrum need more practice than other people, and police officers are not readily available to handle that.”
With police officers getting training and this virtual reality experiment, people with autism will hopefully have improved interactions with law enforcement and fewer unfortunate incidents will occur. It is a matter of awareness, education and understanding, and while certain people on the spectrum have been unfairly treated by law enforcement, that does not mean that all of them will. As long as the officer in question is patient, the situations should get better.
Michael Westwood is a 25 year old college graduate from Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Independent of being a contributor to Step Up, he is looking to pursue a career in professional writing of some type. His hobbies include watching professional wrestling (e.g. WWE and other promotions) and watching select TV sitcoms from today's television (e.g. Big Bang Theory, The Goldbergs) and classic programs as well (e.g. Seinfeld, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond). He also has an ongoing online forum designed to inform people about the autism spectrum called "Ask Mike," which is part of an autism awareness group called All 4 Autism, which is based in Florence, South Carolina.