Police & Autism - First, Do No Harm


There are 4.5 million persons with a developmental disease that includes autism. Young adults and children seem most affected by autism. An average of one in 94 children will have autism. Nationally, autism is considered one of the fastest growing maladies. The likelihood of a police officer encountering a person with autism is increasing.

A police officer should be concerned with a person’s medical problem because persons with physical or mental disabilities are often victims of crime, are lost, injured, or in need of police assistance. Officers should be prepared to understand the problems and what can be done to help or assist.

What is Autism?

The answer is complex, but imperative to understand for patrol officers. Many states now have laws establishing autism awareness. These programs require the police training commission to train all police recruits about persons with autism before graduating from the police academy. The police recruit learns of the risks to the person with autism and the officer’s recognition of the problem and appropriate response techniques concerning such disabilities.

Additionally, many states also mandate in-service training on autism. Every full-time officer must complete an in-service course regarding autism recognition and response techniques. Firefighters and emergency medical services also have the same training requirements.

Linda Meyers, Director of AUTISM NJ, an organization that promotes autism awareness with a primary function of early identification and intervention, said autism is a spectrum disorder with several characteristics along the spectrum. She stated, “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. Each person with the spectrum disorder will have different characteristics.”

Think of autism as a line of numbers, similar to a yardstick, from zero to 100, the lowest numbers include children and adults who are physically and mentally disabled with fewer social skills. At the higher end of the spectrum, the verbal skills reflect more intelligent individuals, capable of working a full-time job and graduating with university degrees. To recognize a person with autism involves many factors. See the sidebar.

Understand the Plight

For police officers in a protection of life situation, it is important to understand the plight of a person with autism during their encounter. Don’t allow a misinterpretation of actions cloud your judgment before taking action. An encounter with a person with autism can be complex and require an officer to be patient and understanding. A key phrase to remember in this circumstance is “First, do no harm.”

Circumstances involving persons with autism that lead to a police encounter are numerous. They are lost. They are victims of a crime, often cases of sexual abuse, physical abuse, theft or robbery. They have become agitated in reaction to bullies, teasing, failure to be understood, or physical sensory to bright lights or loud noises. They have been in an accident. They have run away from home – children with autism sometimes have a tendency to run from home or school and when sought by strangers, they may become agitated. Their behavior is misinterpreted by citizens.

It’s important that police be aware that children and adults with autism, especially those at the lower end of the spectrum, have a tendency to be pliant so taking advantage of them is easy. They become inclined to take blame for something they didn’t do, including confessing to a crime they did not commit or have involvement. Because of this they can be persuaded to participate in criminal activity and will have no understanding of the legal ramifications. They will not understand the Miranda Warning or know of the legal process. They will answer questions without understanding the consequences.

The Police Role

What is the police role? Lesson plans presented to New Jersey police officers encountering children and adults with autism emphasize “Do No Harm.” This is an essential slogan among other facts to remember when learning and practicing in the field. Such recommendations were made after extensive studies by the New Jersey Department of Health explicit for the Police Training Commission.

Children with autism frequently become overwhelmed by loud noises, bright lights and will flee to a favorite hideaway. This is especially precarious if you are attempting to rescue or remove the child from a dangerous place such as a rooftop, bridge or similar

location. People with autism gravitate to bodies of water, including pools, fountains, lakes or streams. The water has a calming effect for them, but if they are oblivious to danger, this can be a problem.

Such encounters will task any officer, especially when he / she must protect life, keep persons safe, and enforce the law. All that can be asked is an officer handle such cases with dignity and fairness.

One part of the equation left out is the overwhelming importance of the parent or caregiver. Here is the person who has demonstrated great love and devotion to his / her child or relative with autism, and in many cases he / she suffers a lifetime of anxiety. Those dealing with children with autism watch them grow into adults worrying about their futures, plagued with the debilitating handicaps, mentally and physically.

Such challenges deplete family resources and sadly often lead to broken families. Any kindness, any dignity an officer can offer to such persons will greatly ease the situation when dealing with the person with autism, the parent and the caregiver. Remember, “First, Do No Harm.”


Common Symptoms Apparent in Many Persons with Autism

  • Difficulty in communication, cannot verbalize – may use a communication device such as an iPad or written material, such as a picture book
  • Physically disabled or deformed; may be unable to move to safety
  • Often frightened by loud noises (sirens, police radios); may become agitated
  • Often frightened by bright lights (overhead emergency lights, flashlights, searchlights)
  • May become agitated
  • May stand too close to an officer (may be attempting to read lips)
  • May stand too far away from an officer when trying to communicate (may indicate the person is frightened)
  • May not respond to non-verbal communication and as a result could become agitated
  • May stand by the officer and repeat sounds and mimic his / her speech
  • Will avoid eye contact when speaking or communicating with an officer or others
  • May be unable to follow instructions, especially if detailed or complicated


Guidelines for the Police Response

  • Don’t assume hostile intent
  • They may have trouble understanding the officer; speak softly when possible
  • Seek the parents or caretaker by identifying the person
  • Assist the person to communicate (use sign language, draw pictures, speak slowly, let them read your lips)
  • Don’t use non-verbal signals
  • Always maintain your composure
  • They may appear combative when in essence they are only trying to communicate or use sign language
  • Don’t demand they look you in the eye when they talk to you
  • Reduce loud sounds and shut off bright lights (overheads where possible), turn down the police radios, insist people stop shouting
  • Take charge but avoid loud language
  • Use direct language when leading the person along, example: “Get into the ambulance,” or “Follow me.”
  • Call for medical assistance when needed.

Albert J. Varga is a retired Deputy Chief of Police with the Hamilton, NJ Police, and a past Police Director of the Lambertville, NJ Police. He is a Senior Manager Consultant for Jersey Professional Management, Cranford, N.J.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2012

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