Law enforcement responders may unexpectedly encounter a person with autism. Individuals with autism look like any other person; however, behavioral clues do exist that an observant officer can use to help indicate they are dealing with an autistic individual. Subtle cues on scene generally depend on the functionality level of the autistic person. Recognition of the behavioral symptoms of autism and the techniques of approach can reduce risk factors to both the individual and the first responders. In most cases, the person will have difficulties following your verbal commands and reading your body language. They may attempt to flee or resist medical treatment. Autistic individuals often have a high level of pain tolerance.
- 50% of people with autism communicate non-verbally. They may not respond to your verbal commands, and may cover their ears, look away, or run away when approached.
- They may toe walk, have a pigeon-toed gait or a running style.
- They may appear psychotic, or under the influence of alcohol/drugs.
- Their responses reflect changes in their sensory perception: lights, sirens, canine partners, odors will escalate repetitive behaviors (pacing, hand flapping, twirling hands, self-hitting, screaming).
- Some will attempt to present an autism information card or wear medical alert identification
- They may not recognize police vehicle, badge or uniform or have any inkling of what is expected of them if they do.
- They frequently appear argumentative, belligerent, or stubborn. They may consistently ask “Why?” or respond "No" to all questions.
- They may parrot (repeat exactly) what the officer says.
- They will have difficulty interpreting your body language.
- They are generally poor listeners.
- They may have a passive monotone voice, and pronounce words unusually.
- They may have difficulty judging personal space; standing too close or too far away from you.
- They frequently perseverate on a favorite topic when they feel uncomfortable; rambling about favorite sports teams, train, bus or plane schedules, city names, foods, etc.
- They are consistently very honest, (sometimes too honest), they do not lie, are blunt, but not very tactful.
Tips for Law Enforcement Responders
No matter what, responding officers must always consider their own personal safety, as in any call.
Typically, persons with autism do not understand the implications or consequences of their behavior; especially aggressive actions. An autistic person may flee when approached by an officer, and fail to respond to an order to stop. Others may react by dropping to the ground and rocking back and forth. They will avoid eye contact with the officer. Officers should not interpret these actions, in and of themselves, as a reason for increased force. Be aware that autistic individuals react to their environment: bright lights, sirens, K-9s, different smells, loud voices, or touching may cause an individual with autism to react in a fight or flight manner.
You may learn the person has autism from your dispatcher, someone at the scene, or the person themselves.
- Make sure the person is unarmed and maintain a safe distance; they may suddenly invade your personal space.
- Evaluate for injury, remember pain tolerance is high.
- Assess for seizure symptoms or injury, request a paramedic response as appropriate.
- Talk calmly and softly in direct, short phrases: “Stand up now.” or “Get in the car.”
- Your uniform, gun, handcuffs, etc may frighten him/her; reassure him/her that no harm is intended.
- Indicate a willingness to understand and help.
- Avoid quick motions or gestures.
- Avoid slang expressions.
- Allow for delayed responses to your questions or commands. Repeat or rephrase as needed. Understand that a rational discussion may not take place.
- Consider use of pictures, written phrases and commands, and/or sign language.
- Avoid pointing or waving.
- Check for medical alert tags or an autism handout card.
- Model calm body language and behaviors.
- Get information from caregivers at the scene about how to best communicate with and de-escalate the person’s behavior.
- Do not stop repetitive behaviors; unless there is risk of injury to yourself or others.
- If possible, decrease sensory stimulation (sirens, flashing lights, crowds).
- Use geographic containment and maintain a safe distance until aggression diminishes.
- Remain alert to the possibility of outbursts or impulsive acts.
- Assess for symptoms of psychosis; delusions or hallucinations.
- Do not express anger, impatience or irritation.
- If possible, allow the person to de-escalate themselves without your intervention. Throw them a blanket or a towel, to allow them to self-soothe.
- Touching the autistic person may cause a protective "fight or flight" reaction, especially on the shoulders or near the face. Announce your actions before initiating them.