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How law enforcement interacts with the Autism community

July 26, 2022  By Joseph Pangaro


Changing communication strategies to better server those on the Spectrum

A few years ago, a statistic was released that indicated that one in 150 children born in New Jersey have one of the conditions on the Autism Spectrum. Since then, the numbers have been updated; currently the statistic is much more alarming: 1 in 50 children born in NJ will be on the spectrum.

Analyzing the data will tell you about the growth of the disorder, but to me and a lot of other people it also reveals the reality that police officers will be coming into contact with people who have an autism spectrum disorder on a much more regular basis.

Over the years there have been quite a few stories about the negative, and sometimes tragic, results from encounters between law enforcement and people with Autism. The training available on this topic has come a long way, and one of the most valuable things is for officers to possess is awareness.

A good friend and fellow police officer, Lt. Jerry Turning, hosted a program to help police officers become familiar with Autism and the characteristics they might see when they meet someone on the spectrum. Turning knows the signs firsthand; his son Eric is autistic. I don’t like putting it that way when describing Turning’s son or anyone else for that matter, because, as I have come to learn, his son is not Autistic; he has autism. There is a difference.

One of the main points Turning wanted to share about autism was that when you encounter someone with the disorder, you can easily mistake their actions and behaviours for the actions and behaviours of a person who is trying to provoke you. It is only when you understand what you are actually seeing that you can properly interact with the individual and avoid any problem or tragedy.

Problems police have when encountering someone on the Spectrum

Jerry Turning has been a police officer for 19 years. The majority of his career has been spent in the K9 unit. According to Turning, when an officer encounters a child or an adult on the Spectrum, a perfect storm of negative circumstances can come together:

  1. Kids with autism physically look no different than anyone else.
  2. Some of the idiosyncratic behaviours that are common in those on the Spectrum closely resemble or mimic behaviours we are taught or instinctively attribute to intoxication or drug impairment.
  3. Social interactions, expressive language, societal morays and unwritten rules don’t come easily to those on the Spectrum. Eye contact is difficult.
  4. Stress, anxiety and bombardment of negative outside stimuli often exacerbate the condition. The fight or flight instinct often kicks in for those on the Spectrum, resulting in violence. This is often misunderstood by cops, which can then lead to tragedy.
  5. Cops often interpret poor eye contact or silence as evasiveness or disrespect, but this simply isn’t true for those on the Spectrum.
  6. Cops are taught to control situations by going hands-on. Often, with those on the Spectrum, this elevates their anxiety, increases the fight or flight instinct and leads to tragedy.

Are they on the Spectrum?

As Turning states, there are a few ways to tell if an individual is on the Spectrum. There may be times when a person with Autism is distracted or consumed with a certain task or item and will ignore other people. Often, they are fully cognizant and understanding but do not show the typical behaviours that we expect from individuals who are engaged in a conversation; eye contact, nodding, facing the individual speaking to them.

Another common behaviour is “stimming”. Stimming is any kind of repetitive or self-stimulating behaviour; it is critical for our guys in self-regulating their bodies and behaviours. For those on the Spectrum, these behaviours are often stark and off-putting. Some of the common stimming behaviours are hand flapping, hopping, vocalization of sounds or noises, or scripting favourite movies or T.V. shows.

People who are on the Spectrum also share other traits, such as being drawn to bodies of water and animals, and becoming fascinated with specific objects, like an officer’s badge. Turning says this is why, during a missing person search for a Special Needs individual, all bodies of water—including pools and small streams—should be checked.

Important things to know

When officers are working with those on the Spectrum, Turning says there a few important things every member of law enforcement should know.

Impaired ability to express language does not equate to impaired ability to understand language or impaired intelligence. People on the Spectrum are very intelligent—and often gifted.

In situations involving heightened anxiety or emotional trauma, the best tactic will often be for officers to ensure the individual’s physical safety and give them space. As long as they are in a safe environment and contained, let them perform whatever self-soothing rituals they need, such as hand flapping, hopping and vocalizations. Barring direct and immediate physical danger, there is no reason to jump in and go hands on with an autistic individual having an emotional crisis.

Family and friends are an underrated resource during encounters with Special Needs individuals and often they are too intimidated to offer suggestions to assist the police. Ask them how to best communicate with the individual; what he is apprehensive about, what his triggers are that might exacerbate the situation (for example, a lot of people on the Spectrum don’t like to be touched), what his interests are and how to best redirect him to gain compliance.

Techniques for better communication

There are many ways officers can better communicate with a person with Autism. Turning shares that the most important one is to speak slowly and clearly. Officers should also avoid slang and figures of speech. If an officer says “Take a seat” to an individual on the Spectrum, the individual may just pick up a chair and ask where to take it because they are very literal thinkers.  This means officers need to say exactly what they mean, for example “Sit down”.

Members of law enforcement also need to remember to be patient. Officers may have to repeat themselves a couple times and they may have to choose different phrasing for their questions. Officers should also allow the individual a few seconds to process the question and respond. Sometimes a written question on a piece of paper is a lot easier for those on the Spectrum to comprehend.

How to diffuse the situation

If a person with Autism gets upset or begins acting out, Turning says the best thing to do is to give them some room – as long as the environment is safe. In these instances, the individual is likely trying to self-regulate, and confining or restraining them can often have the opposite effect from what is desired: calm.

Situations may progress and the use of force against a person with Autism might be necessary. As Turning stated, “I will never tell any police officer to sacrifice their personal safety. A knife in the hands of an individual with Autism is just as deadly as in the hands of anyone else. But understand, if the goal is calm and compliance, force is not your friend.”

Turning believes that most of the incidents that result in injuries to individuals with Autism are use of force issues that stem from the misunderstandings mentioned here in this article. Many friends and families no longer call their local police agencies for assistance anymore out of fear for their loved one’s safety.

These incidents can be avoided by proper communication and exposure. “While national training initiatives are great, this has to happen at the local community level with face-to-face communication between local police agencies and the Special Needs families in their communities,” said Turning. “Officers need to meet and interact with Special Needs citizen under calm and friendly conditions, so their first encounter isn’t under the extreme stress and anxiety of an emergency.”

If an officer must take an individual with Autism to a police station or hospital, the officer though explain every step of the process. Turning suggests that officers assume the individual can understand them, and to explain their intentions fully and honestly. Enlist the help of someone they trust to accompany them or meet them at the facility, and give the individual a step-by-step plan of what’s going to happen. “A great source of anxiety for those on the Spectrum is a lack of control and the unknown. We, the parents of children with Special Needs, are very understanding and forgiving of the police and the job they do, but we have a short fuse when it comes to perceived slights to our child’s dignity or privacy,” said Turning.

In summary

The insights from Lt. Turning are extremely important for all of us and especially for our police officers; our oath to protect and serve our community includes people with Special Needs. I want to thank Lt. Jerry Turning for helping us grow in knowledge and understanding. Every police agency should include a block of training on this topic. If you are not sure what to do, send me a message via email and I’ll help you find a program.


Lt. Joseph Pangaro is a 27-year veteran law enforcement officer and former director of school security. Lt. Pangaro is currently the CEO of True Security Design, a provider of training for law enforcement, schools, business, and religious communities. He can be contacted at JPangaro@TrueSecurityDesign.com.


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