Law Enforcement and Autism

Calls related to an autistic individual can be challenging at best. Recognizing autism, understanding the risks, and learning methods of interaction is critical for a successful crisis resolution.


 

In Custody

If you take an individual into custody and suspect (even remotely) the person may have autism, alert jail authorities; it is essential that the person be segregated.  Additionally, contact the DA about the case for further advice or directions.  These individuals do best in isolation.  Seclusion from other inmates will also reduce the risk of abuse and injury by the general jail or prison population toward the autistic person. The individual should be placed on the detention facility’s mental health roster for psychiatric evaluation.

What If a Crime Has Been Committed?

Whether as offender or victim-witness, persons with autism will present dilemmas in the interview and interrogation room. Their concrete answers, conceptions, and reactions to even the most standard interrogation techniques can confuse even the best trained detectives.  When questioned, they are likely to repeat words or copy body language.  They may not respond to questions/commands/directives at all. 

The Autistic Suspect:  Individuals with autism frequently confess to crimes they did not commit or make misleading statements in order to please the detective.  Their inappropriate responses, such as lack of eye contact, giggling, indifference or lack of remorse can lead to a misinterpretation of guilt.  The interviewer must ask very specific and clear questions.  Avoid questions that may be interpreted as a suggestion to the person.  “What did you do?” is a more appropriate question than, “Did you steal the watch?”  Establish timelines with the person; where, what, how, who questions are best.  Ask questions that require a narrative response instead of a yes/no answer.   Autistic individuals seldom lie; be alert for a spontaneous disclosure of evidence.  Avoid body language and metaphorical questions that may confuse the individual. 

Autistic Victims of Crime:  Due to their vulnerability, people with autism are frequently the victims of crime.  As your uniform and equipment may frighten them, try to interview them in plain clothes.  Consider having a person the victim trusts present at the interview.  Be patient; take time to establish a rapport. The victim may only give an evidentiary statement once (consider video or audio taping the interview).

Conclusion

Fortunately, more developmentally disabled individuals now carry some form of medical alert so that if they cannot speak, their identity and type of disability can be determined.  Officers must recognize the characteristics of autism, and understand the associated risks to intervene appropriately. 

 

Additional Resource

Autism and Emergency Services Training Book

http://www.autismnd.org/Documents/ems.pdf

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