“I may have the advantage of race and gender. I may be able to stave off a meltdown for a short period. I may try my hardest to comply and be non-threatening, but I’m only ever one misunderstanding or nervous officer away from death. And it may be, in any given encounter, that there’s nothing I can do about it.”
– “Cassie” (personal communication)
Much has been written about training law enforcement officers to recognize and de-escalate situations involving people with mental health and cognitive/developmental disabilities. These situations can escalate to violence when non-autistic people, with little understanding, knowledge, or awareness of autistic differences, witness disturbing behaviors and call Emergency Services.
In the mid-2000s, I worked for Laura Sky, a documentary filmmaker in Toronto, Ontario, learning a lot about tragic encounters between people with mental illnesses and police. The premise of her documentary, Crisis Call, was, “Armed police should never be first responders to people experiencing a mental health crisis” (Sky). Too many people with psychiatric issues and/or developmental disabilities behave in ways others don’t comprehend. If police are called upon to intercede, the crisis may escalate – sometimes to the point of lethality.
“Since 2015, nearly a quarter of all people killed by police officers in America have had a known mental illness…One of the many examples: the  shooting of a distraught 13-year-old boy with an autism spectrum disorder by Salt Lake City police after his mother called officers to report that her son was having ‘a mental breakdown’” (Treisman).
More Likely to be Victims
Like those facing a mental health crisis, Colleen M. Berryessa, 2014, (as cited in Chiacchia, 2014) reports, “Researchers agree that most individuals with high functioning ASD are law abiding citizens who are more likely to be victims of crimes than commit crimes, but they are still seven times more likely to intersect with the criminal justice system than individuals without ASD” (Berryessa, 2014).
Autistic children and adults frequently have co-morbid mental health issues. Autistic traits may expose them to criminal charges due to perceived antisocial behavior, inability to pick up on social cues, and challenges with both verbal and nonverbal communication (Cohen, Dickerson & Forbes, 2014 cited in Chiacchia, 2014).
In nearly all situations, especially those involving a person in crisis, responding officers must evaluate the scene and make instant decisions. According to police officers I’ve personally heard address this issue, “You get very little information about the subject of a call from the dispatcher. You’re going in blind, having to weigh each situation against your training, experience, and potential consequences. You’re constantly making split second decisions.”
The decision-making process requires “A police officer…to describe a specific set of circumstances or facts that would lead any objectively reasonable law enforcement officer to suspect the individual is, or has been, engaged in a criminal activity” (“Reasonable Suspicion”).
Gaze aversion, literal interpretation of language, mutism, reduced reciprocity, and flat affect are interpreted by a majority of neurotypicals as deceptive. Behaviors such as stimming, rocking and pacing are commonly associated with perceptions of dishonest behavior (“Criminal Justice and Mental Health, Disability | EurekAlert!”).
In an Ontario study of 284 youth and adults with autism conducted over a period of 18-months by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 16 percent of the study participants reported interactions with police. In one-third of the incidents, adverse police action increased the autistic person’s agitation, worsening the situation. The study’s author, clinician-scientist Yona Lunsky, suggests, “If police maybe don’t recognize or understand that there’s autism there, they don’t have the right sensitivity to respond” (Boisvert).
Ryley Bauman, 16, who is non-verbal and functions at the level of a seven-year-old, was playing in a park behind his grandparents’ house when he was apprehended by officers who believed he was on drugs. Spending time in a holding cell traumatized him. Ryley now clings to his parents and, according to his father, has been robbed of his hard-won independence (Snowdon).
In March 2021, an 11-year-old autistic boy, highly sensitive to touch, was arrested for poking a classmate with a pencil, after the other student wrote on him with a marker. Bodycam footage showed officers grabbing him, pushing him against a desk, ignoring his screams that they were hurting him, and putting him in the back of a patrol car. Left alone in the car for two hours, the terrified pre-teen repeatedly banged his head on the plexiglass, badly bruising his arms and forehead, requiring hospitalization (King).
What Causes Aggression in Autism?
While no one is 100 percent certain, numerous factors have been linked to autistic “rage” and aggression, including information and sensory processing impairments, insomnia, impaired communication (Sarris) plus medical/metabolic disorders such as pain, seizures, GI issues, medication side effects, low blood sugar, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, hormone imbalances, anxiety, OCD, and more (Panol).
Anger is Common in Autism
Obsessions combined with negative emotions often turn into anger rumination. Reliving stressors and the difficulty expressing emotions in ways others understand can lead to outbursts of irritability, anxiety, and anger. Anxious, frightened people tend to seek out ways of managing or alleviating their negative emotions. Sometimes in ways that may not conform to social norms.
People with autism have few defenses and are vulnerable to bullying, intolerance, and negative behavior from others. Unfortunately, many of the things that upset those of us on the Spectrum may seem petty to our [neuro]typical peers. Warning signs of aggression include:
- Fear, anxiety
- Unwillingness to leave, or enter a room or residence
- Sweating, shaking
- Self-abusive behavior
- Covering eyes or ears
- Pacing, hand flapping, rocking
- Lashing out
We use many terms to define autism: e.g., anxiety, executive functioning, bullying, social ineptitude, and sensory sensitivities. But we seldom talk about frustration. Frustrations accumulate. They stem in part from our cognitive rigidity, plus the fact that the NT world feels like an alien culture. We’re misunderstood, struggle to make friends, and often fail to reach our potential – which can lead to un-or underemployment and homelessness. We’re outsiders and many of us are lonely.
Autists do behave badly at times. But, according to Lunsky, the big problem is, “If police maybe don’t recognize or understand that there’s autism there, they don’t have the right sensitivity to respond… [P]olice need to be on the lookout for behaviours like repeating commands, avoiding eye contact or not responding to an officer’s questions” (Boisvert).
Working Together Toward Solutions
Better and more extensive police training on recognizing traits and behaviors signifying a person may have autism is vital. Being the subject of a police enquiry is frightening for anybody. And common “police tactics such as ramping up instructions, moving closer or even making physical contact can quickly backfire,” (Boisvert) escalating an incident to dangerous, even lethal, levels.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help the autistic person better understand their own behaviors and teach them more productive coping skills. Police officers can receive training. And parents/guardians or caregivers of autistic children and adults can help by discussing, planning, and preparing for situations where law enforcement officers may be summoned.
Annie Kent, MA Psychology, spent two decades working in public sector disability, mental health, and addictions advocacy and education. Diagnosed with three closely related categories of neurodiversity, a lack of awareness and understanding led to Autistic burn-out and retirement from the field. She remains an active advocate, learning and engaging remotely with several Autism and ADHD organizations and forums, including CADDRA. For more information, email Annie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boisvert, Nick. “Police Officers Agitate People with Autism, Worsen Situation in a Third of Encounters, Study Finds.” Cbc.Ca, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 13 June 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/autism-police-study-camh-1.4158684
Chiacchia, Monique. “Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Criminal Justice System: A Call to Legislative Awakening.” Purdue Global, Purdue Global, 5 Apr. 2016, https://www.purdueglobal.edu/blog/criminal-justice/autism-and-the-criminal-justice-system/#:~:text=ASD%20individuals%20can%20exhibit%20behaviors%20that%20expose%20them,and%20nonverbal%20messages%20%28Cohen%2C%20Dickerson%20%26%20Forbes%2C%202014%29
“Criminal Justice and Mental Health, Disability | EurekAlert!” EurekAlert!, FLINDERS UNIVERSITY, 13 May 2022, https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/952827#:~:text=Gaze%20aversion%2C%20lack%20of%20emotional%20expression%2C%20repetitive%20body,%E2%80%93%20notably%20in%20the%20judicial%20and%20police%20system.
King, Jordan. “Boy with Autism, 11, Arrested for ‘poking Classmate with Pencil’ | Metro News.” Metro, Metro.co.uk, 11 Mar. 2021, https://metro.co.uk/2021/03/11/boy-with-autism-11-arrested-for-poking-classmate-with-pencil-14227064/.
Panol, Ace. “Medical Causes of Aggression in Autism – The Autism Community in Action.” The Autism Community in Action, https://www.facebook.com/TheAutismCommunityInAction, 8 Feb. 2021, https://tacanow.org/family-resources/medical-causes-of-aggression-in-autism/
“Reasonable Suspicion.” Legal Dictionary, https://legaldictionary.net/reasonable-suspicion/ Accessed 20 Mar. 2023.
Rudy, Lisa Jo. “Helping People With Autism Manage Anxiety.” Verywell Health, 13 Dec. 2018, https://www.verywellhealth.com/anxiety-and-autism-4428086.
Sarris, Marina. “SPARK for Autism | Understanding Aggressive Behavior in Autism.” SPARK for Autism, Simons Foundation, 8 Oct. 2020, https://sparkforautism.org/discover_article/understanding-aggressive-behavior-in-autism/.
Sky, Laura. “Crisis Call–A Film by Laura Sky.” Skyworks Charitable Foundation, 2003, https://vimeo.com/639433747.
Snowdon, Wallis. “Alberta Teen with Autism Still Traumatized Weeks after RCMP Arrested Him at a Playground | CBC News.” CBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 25 Oct. 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/autism-teen-arrest-st-albert-rcmp-alta-1.6627361.
Treisman, Rachel. “13-Year-Old Boy With Autism Disorder Shot By Salt Lake City Police.” NPR.Org, National Public Radio, 9 Sept. 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/09/09/910975499/autistic-13-year-old-boy-shot-by-salt-lake-city-police.