Police contacts with persons with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have—by all manner of accounting—been on a rapid rise.
Late last year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that—according to data collected in 11 communities in the United States in 2018—approximately one in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For context, one in 166 children was diagnosed on the spectrum in 2004.
April is Autism Awareness Month, a coordinated campaign among medical professionals and others to educate people about individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It begins with United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day on April 2 and continues with a variety of events and exercises designed to promote acceptance for the condition which is increasingly prevalent and affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
Many police departments across the country participate in Autism Awareness Month by displaying custom agency patches or squad car markings with the brightly colored puzzle-piece pattern, which was adopted in 1963 to signify the complexity of the autism spectrum.
More importantly, departments of all size are increasingly providing training—or seeking the assistance of outside trainers—on contacts with persons on the autism spectrum. Here are some reminders for law enforcement officers to keep in mind.
Stimming and Sensory Issues
Many people on the spectrum do not display any visible outward signs of their condition, but among the traits that can be seen with the naked eye is a behavior called stimming—repetitive, self-soothing body movements such as in the hands and fingers—essentially self de-escalation.
During ILEETA 2022 last month in St. Louis, Chris Christman of the Seattle Police Department taught a course on Law Enforcement and Autism. Christman spoke with me after his lecture.
"Stimming is almost strictly associated with autism," Christman says. "If you hear the word stimming, immediately think that there's some sort of autism-related component—you won't usually hear the word stimming associated with anything else."
Christman advises that if an officer can do so safely, let an ASD subject "stim" while also being cognizant and cautious of the fact that some stimming can be a form of self-harm.
Another signal is sensitivity to outside stimuli exceeding that which is typical. For example, lights, sirens, elevated voices, and other input can have a severely adverse effect on an ASD subject.
"One of the things I talk about in my class—that a lot of times cops don't talk about—is body cameras," Christman says. "Our body cameras at Seattle PD are probably about three or four inches in diameter with a red blinking light in the middle that most officers wear in the center of their chest. When you're talking about sensory overstimulation, a red blinking light only adds to that."
He adds, "If you know you're going on a call that has some sort of autism-related component, and you have the ability to put that body cam in what we refer to as 'stealth mode' where it doesn't blink and doesn't buzz, do that."
Christman notes that interestingly, while ASD subjects may be hyper-sensitive to sound, they may also be boisterous and loud.
"If you talk to parents of children on the spectrum, one of the common things that you hear them say is, 'My child hates loud noises, but they're the loudest person in every room,'" Christman says.
Christman spoke also of what he calls the "trifecta of a bad call" with ASD subjects.
"When you're dealing with people on the autism spectrum it's pretty common that they can be attracted to bright, shiny objects. It's pretty common that they might not have an understanding of a personal bubble or personal space. It's also pretty common that some folks can be pretty 'handsy' and seek out stimulation through touch," he explains.
In such a circumstance, an officer unaware of the fact that they're dealing with a person on the spectrum might make an understandable—but avoidable—error.
Wandering & Water
According to Autism Speaks—an organization "dedicated to promoting solutions, across the spectrum and throughout the life span, for the needs of individuals with autism and their families"—nearly half of those with autism wander from home or bolt from safety.
It's important to remember that ASD subjects are attracted to water, and tragically many such subjects have been found drowned in lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. Some believe that this attraction is because of the shiny reflective nature of water, or the burbling sound it can make when moving.
Christman also covered the topics of wandering and water in his 2022 ILEETA presentation. He says, "I try not to get too much into statistics, but I really do think there are two statistics that convey how important our correct response to missing persons on the Autism spectrum is. If you have a child who is under age five and if they're missing long enough for police to be contacted, 60% of the time that call ends in that child's death. That's shockingly high."
Christman says that the other statistic he discusses in his class goes to the water obsession sometimes seen in ASD subjects.
"For 14 years old and younger, the cause of accidental deaths is drowning 91% of the time," he says. "So in a search for persons with Autism, absolutely search your nearby water sources.
Depending what part of the country you're in, that could be you pools, ponds, lakes, rivers, stream, or even manmade drainage basins adjacent to schools, residential developments, or commercial property.
Christman reminds officers conducting any search for a missing ASD person to remember the possibility that the individual may have simply gone to a neighbor's house. He adds that while talking with the neighbors, determine if they have a doorbell camera or other security devices that may indicate the missing person's direction of travel at a specific time and location.
He stresses that in any search for a missing ASD subject police should pull out all the stops, including the assistance of other agencies and first responder disciplines.
"Do you have a drone program? Do you have a harbor program? For us in Seattle, our fire department has portable FLIRs. If you're searching a large park at night, can you [involve] the fire department's FLIR system to look in the woods? Yeah, we're going to find a lot of raccoons and stuff like that but you also might find that person who is missing," Christman concludes.
Police contact with ASD individuals is a practical inevitability. Autistic individuals are at risk of being victims of crimes from bullying to battery to sexual assault. Further, although they are statistically less likely to commit a crime, their potentially erratic behavior may cause concerned citizens to call police for assistance.
Regular training on tactics and strategies aimed at keeping everyone safe will invariably pay dividends down the road.