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Police Interaction with Autistic Persons: The Need For Training

NCJ Number
AELE Monthly Law Journal Volume: 7 Issue: 101 Dated: 2009 Pages: 101-111
Date Published
July 2009
11 pages
After defining autism as a disability, this article explains why police officers are likely to interact with autistic individuals in the course of their duties, followed by suggestions for police in identifying autism, relating to and restraining autistic persons in a safe and appropriate manner, and how to interview autistic individuals.
Autism is a disability characterized as a brain-development disorder that results in impaired communication and social interaction. Autistic individuals often engage in restricted and repetitive behavior. They are typically most comfortable with predictable routines and adhere to them rigidly. They can become easily upset by a change in routine or a new situation. Their behaviors under such circumstances may be viewed by observers as hostile, having criminal intent, or a manifestation of substance abuse. Given the possibility of such behavior, police are likely to encounter autistic individuals and should therefore be trained in the nature, symptoms, and management of autism. Although an officer cannot be expected to diagnose autism, understanding the common characteristics of autism may help an officer respond more appropriately in an encounter. This article lists 10 characteristics of behaviors stemming from autism that an officer may observe in an interaction with autistic individuals. This article also advises police officers on how they should behave when they suspect or are informed by caregivers that an individual is autistic. Advice is to make sure the person is unarmed; maintain a safe distance; model the behavior you want the suspect to display; use a quiet, nonthreatening voice; use simple language; avoid touching, if possible; allow for delayed response from the suspect; turn off lights and sirens, if possible; and talk to people who know the suspect, preferably caregivers. Guidance is also provided on interviewing an autistic person. A listing of resources