Why Don’t More Police Know About Autism?
In today’s world, we’ve (finally) begun to have in-depth conversations about the realities of police brutality and racism.
We’ve become flooded with information, from history lessons we never knew to personal stories in real-time. You can’t scroll down a social media feed without coming across them.
As I was doing what is now my quarantine routine of hours-long scrolling, I saw this:
Seeing this image led me down a rabbit hole of interactions with police and people with autism. It was…interesting.
I was reminded of the incident with Charles Kinsey, the behavior therapist who was shot by police while he was outside retrieving his autistic patient who had run away. The police were searching for an armed suicidal man when they saw Kinsey’s patient holding a toy truck. They pointed guns at, and attempted to give orders to the patient to which he did not comply. The therapist came out and made his best efforts to explain to the police that his patient was not a threat. While he followed instructions and laid on the ground with his hands in the air, an officer shot Kinsey in the leg.
50% of children with autism wander or have wandered from their homes. One of the dangers of wandering, according to the National Autism Association, is the risk of encountering law enforcement.
Along with the dangers of being autistic while running into police, the danger is multiplied when that autistic individual is black.
So what’s going on in the field of law enforcement that this happens so often?
For starters, let’s face it: police in general are drastically unprepared to interact with people with autism. Some characteristics of autism include avoiding eye contact, non-speaking, non-compliance, stimming, or fleeing an uncomfortable situation. To someone who is unfamiliar with them, these behaviors might lead an officer to assume that the person is on drugs (as many officers have assumed before).
Are police officers trained to recognize these traits? Well, yes and no.
In the United States, some large departments offer training, however it’s not mandated. Arizona and Alabama don’t mandate training. Florida, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey do have mandated training, thanks to a law passed in 2008. Unfortunately though, a 2016 study showed that in New Jersey, 23% of agencies weren’t in compliance with that law. Even across the pond, a survey of 394 officers across England and Wales revealed that only 37% of them received any specialized training with special needs.
Yes, I know, this sucks. The police need to do a better job of prioritizing the safety of the community. With that there needs to be a nationwide standard of training. Thankfully, there are organizations that are doing their best to resolve this.
There’s Samuel’s Law, a Texas law that provides special identification on driver’s licenses and codes that show up when an officer looks up their plates. The National Autism Association has free downloadable toolkits for first responders, caregivers, and teachers. ALEC, the Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition provides training for first responders by first responders who have experience with autism through their own family members. However, quite possibly the coolest and most innovative technology in police training is VirTra: a virtual training simulator that’s created an autism awareness training curriculum. It allows the trainee to virtually interact with someone on the spectrum, and get real time feedback on their responses.
What can we do to be more proactive in the meantime?
- Carry a medical ID card or wear a bracelet that informs a first responder about autism (if you use a card, it’s best to wear it around your neck so you don’t have to reach into your pocket).
- Get the Big Red Safety Box (it’s free!)
- Teach the BE SAFE curriculum, or watch the video.
- Reach out to your local police department. Introduce them to your child and explain all of their needs. Have them keep that information on file so that officers are aware when they are on duty.
- Contact your local, state, and even federal representatives. Express to them the serious need of mandatory police training and/or reform.