While on patrol in Buckeye, Arizona, a police officer notices a teenager sitting alone on a park bench.
The teen is doing something with his hands.
His motions are repetitive and a bit jerky.
Trained to suspect illegal drug use, the officer approaches the boy and asks what he’s doing.
“I’m stimming,” he says.
The term means nothing to the officer, who decides to investigate further.
The boy appears to be walking away, so the officer orders him to stop.
Holding up the item in his hand, he says, “It’s a string.”
“Do you have any ID?” asks the officer.
“No,” says the teen, backing away.
The officer orders the boy to stay put. Instead, the boy becomes agitated, repeatedly saying, “I’m OK, I’m OK,” before starting to scream.
Things rapidly get worse until the teen’s caregiver appears on the scene. By this time, the boy is handcuffed, bruised, and on the ground.
The caregiver eventually explains to the officer that the teen has autism.
Among other things, autism causes impairment in social interactions.
If this officer had been trained to recognize autism in such a situation, there’s a possibility that much of what happened could’ve been avoided.
A view from the trenches
The prevalence of autism among children appears to be rising.
The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 of every 68 children born in 2004 has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
That’s up from approximately 1 in 150 of children born in 1992.
Healthline discussed the subject of law enforcement and autism with Elizabeth Rossiaky, a board-certified behavior analyst with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD).
Rossiaky works one-on-one with children who have autism. She has personal experience observing interactions between law enforcement and those children.
“Throughout the country, you’re going to see a spectrum of officers and how they handle those situations involving individuals with autism,” said Rossiaky. “What it really comes down to is education and training.”
“The officers [in some Chicago suburbs] are required to have bachelor degrees,” she added. “They do go through more mental illness training. They go through more de-escalation training.”
However, there’s little to no standardization in levels of education and mental health training for officers throughout the country.
“Some officers have [less education] and receive maybe an eight-hour course on mental health. And that’s about it,” said Rossiaky.
Instead, “they often get way more training on how to physically manage an individual,” said Rossiaky. “That’s where you see an officer approaching a child, not knowing how to handle [them] not responding, and then the child ending up on the ground.”
Like what happened to the Arizona teenager.
“It’s because that’s where their focus lies,” said Rossiaky.
One police department takes action
Within the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland, educating police officers about autism is part of an official program.
Healthline spoke with Officer Laurie Reyes, the department’s Autism IDD Alzheimer’s Outreach Officer.
IDD stands for intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Reyes spoke about what they’re doing in Montgomery County to help police officers recognize when an individual might have autism.
“In 2005, [we] were given the task of coming up with a solution to the increasing number of calls we were receiving for those who had autism and other intellectual disabilities, mostly autism, that were the focus of what we now call at-risk missing person calls,” she said.
“This is a person who has wandered and is at risk for harm,” explained Reyes.
Reyes said they started with bracelet programs.
Soon afterward, they began considering new education programs that would allow law enforcement to be more proactive when working with autism in the community.
Reyes said that the program now provides “a layered approach to awareness and safety through education of our officers.”
Education is key
“Since 2010, we began educating our officers on the dynamics of interactions with law enforcement and the autism community,” Reyes said.
“I have a curriculum and an outreach program for those who have autism,” she said.
Reyes added that as part of their education layer, the department uses what they call “self-advocates.”
They appointed a young man, Jake Edwards, as their Autism IDD Ambassador.
Edwards teaches the curriculum with Reyes, giving speeches and coming up with scenarios that he participates in with the officers.
“You never know what Jake’s going to do. Jake comes up with the scenarios that he wants to have that day. So Jake allows the officers to learn about autism. Not from Officer Reyes, but from Jake,” said Reyes.
Together with other officers, Reyes gives presentations to family members. This is, explained Reyes, because “we also need to educate the community and the caregivers and the individuals.”
“I like to think [our] officers are in a position where they can empower those who may be perceived as at a disadvantage,” said Reyes. “We provide awards. We make sure that the parents and those individuals know that we’re here to support them.”
“We [also] provide immediate follow-up to those individuals who have been the focus of [searches, etc.],” said Reyes. “Officers know they can reach out to me when they have [any] type of involvement with someone who might need outreach from the autism community.”
The safety kit
Reyes said the department developed a safety kit that they provide, free of charge, to people with autism.
The kit includes, among other things, a T-shirt for people who can’t speak for themselves. It reads, “I am a person who has autism or IDD. Call 9-1-1 if I am alone.”
Reyes said the T-shirt isn’t for everyone.
“[It] is designed for somebody who’s in immediate danger should they be out and about alone,” she said.
The kit also includes an ID bracelet, window clings for the home and car, and a few other useful items.
“The reason why I’m such a huge fan of the ID bracelet, for those who feel comfortable wearing it, is two-fold,” said Reyes.
“First, that introduction and interaction is vitally important to build familiarity between law enforcement and the autism community.”
“Second,” continued Reyes, “even for those that are very verbal and can communicate, under stress they may not be able to communicate.”
Reyes suggests that the best thing people can do is to be proactive.
After reaching out to just about every major organization in Montgomery County, Reyes listed the following recommendations:
"Make sure officers are educated, the parent or caregiver is educated, and the individual is educated, as best as that can happen. Meaning that people are of all levels of comprehension on the [autism] spectrum. Understanding that is important."
What to do if confronted by a police officer
“If you’re under stress, if the officer approaches you, you are to do two things: show the ID bracelet and stay put,” said Reyes. “Don’t move. Stay put. Don’t walk away from a police officer. Show the ID bracelet and stay put.”
“Those two things, in conjunction with all of the other safety measures, could lead to a more positive interaction if the officer is educated,” said Reyes.
Further, Reyes explained, “If you can articulate that you have autism, self-disclose that you have autism as soon as you can. If you can’t self-disclose, then the ID bracelet is another layer.”
“The other thing I recommend is what I call ‘introductions and interactions,’” said Reyes. “That means, introduce your child as often as possible from a young age to police officers.”
Reyes mentioned one way the department provides outreach into the community is an effort to facilitate those introductions and interactions.
“We began what’s called our Autism IDD Night Out, where we bring individuals who have autism and law enforcement officers together for a really fun night,” said Reyes.
Last year, 400 people attended.
Rossiaky also emphasizes positive interaction with police.
“I do talk to parents about getting to know their police departments, especially if their child is an eloper, which means they’re going to wander and potentially get lost,” she said.
“I think anyone who has a child with a disability that could put them in a dangerous situation, they should get to know their police department, and they should get the police department to know their child,” said Rossiaky.
“We’re trying to teach these kids how to function in society,” said Rossiaky. “So we take them on community outings. And my therapists worry about what to do if they act out and someone wants to call the police.”
Rossiaky said they tell those people to call the police if they’re not comfortable with what they see.
However, she points out that can be risky for the therapists as well as the person who has autism.
“When we have them call the police, that can be a big risk to us,” said Rossiaky.
She mentioned an incident that happened in Florida, where a caregiver was shot in the leg by a police officer who was aiming his gun at a 23-year-old man with autism.
A model for the future
The Montgomery County program is somewhat unique, in that it’s an official program within the police department.
Reyes said she doesn’t believe there are many others like it, but hopes that someday there will be.
While some police departments do create their own programs, many others use outside companies that specialize in autism and IDD to help train officers.
One of the goals of officer education is simply to make them consider if autism could be involved when approaching a subject like the Arizona teenager.
Reyes, in talking about some of what she teaches to other officers, said, “And then I say, ‘When you get the call for the young man running across a major highway, maybe without clothing, maybe that person’s not on PCP. Maybe that person has autism. Could it be that?’”
That simple question might make all the difference.
On its website, Autism Speaks provides information and advice for parents and first responders about children with autism who wander.