By Jean Reynolds

Police procedures for autism may be different from ordinary police practices. Persons with autism may not respond to commands and may not understand body language or basic social behavior. Officers need to be careful not to overreact if a person with autism seems uncooperative. That person may be having difficulty figuring out what is going on and may not know how to respond to law enforcement. A few simple principles and practices can help ensure that both officers and persons with autism will remain safe.

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects children, teens, and adults. Experts estimate that one in 54 persons has some form of autism. Symptoms include impaired social skills and difficulty with oral communication and body language. Those problems can cause problems when law enforcement interacts with a person who has autism. For this reason, it’s important for officers to be familiar with appropriate police procedures for autistic persons.

Dennis Debbaudt is the author of Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement ProfessionalsHe explains that a person with autism may be slow to respond to commands and warnings from a police officer—or may not respond at all. As a result, every year there are injuries—sometimes deaths—of persons with autism as the result of encounters with law enforcement. Sometimes court cases are the result, with large damage awards paid to grieving families.

Here are some behaviors that might cause concern to a police officer: Persons with autism may exhibit either agitation or withdrawal. Other characteristics may include hiding, covering eyes or ears, grabbing shiny objects (such as a badge, a weapon, or handcuffs), and feeling fearful of unfamiliar equipment, noises, and lights (such as sirens and flashers). Persons with autism may wander off and exhibit bizarre behavior in public without being able to explain what they’re doing.

The dangers are clear. A police officer who’s used to instant cooperation from citizens may become indignant when the person with autism fails to respond to questions, requests, or commands. The unusual behavior that’s typical of autism may seem threatening to an inexperienced police officer.

So the first principle for an officer who’s dealing with an autistic person is to take your time. Stay calm and proceed slowly. A person with autism may be experiencing a sensory overload and have difficulty focusing on what the officer is saying.

Here are some additional suggestions:

  • Because many persons with autism do not like to be touched, keep your distance and avoid using restraints unless they’re absolutely necessary.
  • Keep distractions and stimuli to a minimum.
  • If possible, avoid bringing equipment into the setting, especially if it makes noise.
  • Try to locate someone who’s familiar with the autistic person (such as a family member), and take your cues from that person.

Once the autistic person has calmed down and is able to focus, you may be able to proceed with whatever police functions are necessary.

These simple principles—and a large dose of patience—can be lifesaving when you’re dealing with an autistic person. Remember that the thoughts and feelings of a person with special needs are just as real to him or her as the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing. Be respectful and proceed slowly. The family and friends of the person with autism will appreciate what you’re doing—and you just might save a life.

Debbaudt, D. (2002). Autism, advocates, and law enforcement professionals recognizing and reducing risk situations for people with autism spectrum disorders. London: Jessica Kingsley.