Children and adults with autism, like others, may in their childhood or adulthood experience encounters with law enforcement. This may occur when the child/adult with autism discloses abuse or their abuse is witnessed or suspected and reported for investigation. At this sensitive point in their lives, it is important not only that the law enforcement, protective services, and qualified forensic interviewer have the attitude, skills and knowledge (ASK) needed. It is also important that the child/adult have information about how best to deal with the situation in which they find themselves. Whether they are a child or an adult with an autism spectrum disorder, whether they are brought in for suspected bad behavior or as a victim of bad behavior, some preparation is needed – or things can go terribly wrong.
Abuse and trauma play a significant role in the lives of those with autism and other developmental disabilities. In their seminal research on abuse among children with disabilities, Sullivan and Knutson (2000) published their findings that children with disabilities in general experience abuse at 3.4 times the rate of their generic counterparts. In 1994, Sobsey’s review of studies indicated that adults with developmental disabilities are abused at rates ranging from 4-10 times that of neurotypical individuals. In the absence of a national survey, the Disability and Abuse Project (Baladerian, Coleman & Stream, 2012) conducted one to learn about prevalence as well as sequelae of abuse. Garnering 7,289 responses, findings include that over 70% of people with disabilities had been abused (Baladerian, Coleman & Stream, 2012). However, most abuse was not reported. Survey respondents indicated that the reason for not reporting was predominantly fear that nothing would be done. Among respondents who indicated they reported the abuse, over half said nothing was done by law enforcement (full research findings are available on our website at www.disabilityandabuse.org).
It is my experience of over 35 years that when police/sheriff and protective services workers begin their jobs, they do not receive training to work with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I was recently asked to speak on the training provided to Adult Protective Services workers in Los Angeles County. I learned that over the past 25 years there have been three announcements of a new online training. I took this training and found that it included the words “developmentally disabled” once, and none of the training was directed to this population. The entire focus was on the elder population. As to the other counties in California, I do not know. I do know that the few people who conduct such trainings mourn the lack of training nationally. The situation is similar for law enforcement. Several years ago I had a grant to provide training at no cost to law enforcement officers around the state using a POST-Certified training curriculum. This training was specifically on children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism. The Los Angeles Police Department declined receiving this training as they “already have training on mental illness.” I was extremely disappointed. Nothing I could say, such as “autism is not a mental illness,” could convince the training director. Law enforcement who did take the training said it filled an important gap in their preparation to work with people on the spectrum and those with other developmental disabilities.
It is essential for anyone dealing with the public such as law enforcement and first responders to become knowledgeable about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities including autism. One motto I love is, “when you have met one person with autism…you have met one person with autism!” Everyone is so different! Thus, one can do a training using the usual “here are the differences, here are the similarities” model, yet there is much more to the story. There are unique sensitivities, abilities, methods of communication, styles of communication, and relationship issues among others that demand officer sensitivity. One clear example is that many on the spectrum are literal thinkers. When officers fail to adjust their communication corresponding to this unique and oft-present feature, they may not realize that they are not using expressive language in a way that reflects what they really want to communicate. A good training will help increase their awareness that the use of sayings, sarcasm, joking, and commands may not be understood in the same way by the listener on the spectrum. They should be aware of the variety of ways in which children and adults with autism communicate, particularly those who are non-verbal.
One parent told me that when her son was 10, he had suddenly disappeared while she was in the kitchen and he had been outside. She immediately went looking for him. Someone had called the fire department on her behalf. She saw a fire truck at a distance and drove to it. When she arrived a police officer was there. She asked if he had found her son. He asked the mother for a description, which she gave and he told her to follow him. They drove to a location where a sheriff had detained and handcuffed her boy. The sheriff had responded to a call from a woman who saw the boy playing with some whirligigs in her yard and stated that she thought the boy (a ten year old!) was “on drugs.” They were not near the woman’s yard, so the mother believes her son may have run when the sheriff came along. Arriving at the scene, she asked the sheriff to remove the handcuffs, which he did. The mother asked for the sheriff to write up his report but he refused. The mother and boy got in the car to go home. At home he told her that the sheriff had caught him and asked him his name. Since he is non-verbal and uses an augmentative communication device (AlphaSmart), he had handed the device to the officer. The officer threw the device onto the hood of his car and demanded again that the boy say his name. Being unable to say, “I’m non-verbal,” the officer took his silence as rebellion, or a sign of danger, handcuffed him then struck him in the genitals with his baton. No warning. No reason. And no awareness on the part of the officer that the autistic little boy had complied 100% with the officer’s demands. And no apology for his disrespectful and unlawful conduct, either.
A recent publication (Teagardin, Dixon, Smith & Granpeesheh, 2012) describes that a training program for law enforcement officers resulted in post-exposure scores above pre-training scores, but did not result in mastery of the material, which would have hopefully translated to improved performance in the field. Further, the article suggests that a more effective training would include more than watching a 13 minute video, but include more comprehensive information on autism itself, how it may manifest, and most importantly, how officer conduct could change to accommodate the needs of children and adults with autism.
It is for this reason that I advise parents to teach their children “the opposite” of what the generic child is taught. In other words, most children are taught that the police officer “is your friend” and “is there to help you.” While this is true and law enforcement should help if the child becomes lost, for example, as the child ages and becomes an adult, things change.
Because of differences in conduct, appearance or use of language, officers may become suspicious when a detainee does not engage in eye contact, sticks to one- or two-word responses, rocks, or vocalizes without words. Police are sensitive to “differences” and may be quick to interpret such conduct as being that of a nervous perpetrator or someone on drugs or alcohol or with a mental illness. Their list of reasons to understand this behavior needs to be expanded to include autism…but this is taking a lot of time. And, during this time, many teens and young adults suffer, as their treatment at the hands of untrained law enforcement officers has led to egregious outcomes and great suffering by the person with autism and their family members.
In order to correct some of these problems, under a grant from the California Justice Act Task Force, our team at the CAN-DO Project, (Child Abuse and Neglect Disability Outreach Project), under the Arc of Riverside County, CA, developed a comprehensive two day training program for law enforcement, protective services workers, prosecutors, and others who interact with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, then delivered this curriculum around the state for two years. In addition, we developed two law enforcement/protective services/first responder training DVD’s. One was to enhance officer and forensic interviewer performance in conducting their interviews. The second was to improve first-responder approaches. This latter was built on the material in the curriculum.
In addition to training law enforcement and protective services professionals, it is essential to provide accurate information to parents of children and adults on the spectrum with the realities of interfacing with law enforcement. While most officers are well-meaning, without training they may misinterpret autistic conduct in a negative manner and move to detain rather than to create a safe interaction with the individual.
It is my hope that proper and vetted training will soon be mandatory for those responding to calls for help. The materials for training exist. Training videos exist. It is simply a matter of valuing the population adequately. What will it take? Most likely mandated and funded training statutes will be needed. Currently SB 11 (an act to add Sections 13515.26 and 13515.27 to the Penal Code relating to peace officer training standards), is pending in California to mandate officer training. But, it remains unknown how that training would be conducted.
Meanwhile, it is essential for parents to be or become aware of the dangers that face their children. For most people, entering into the law enforcement arena as a suspect, is new, brand new territory. It should be done not only with caution, but an attorney, particularly one familiar with autism and the communication difficulties that can arise. Since many on the spectrum are non-verbal and use alternative and augmentative communication (AAC), it is essential that these methods be viewed by law enforcement as valid strategies, at the level of American Sign Language. They should also be familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and adhere to the mandates for accommodation detailed therein. Of course parents and individuals on the spectrum should likewise be aware of the ADA and their rights for accommodation if detained or when one is victimized. Adults with autism should be advised to say nothing, as is their right, if detained, until a parent and/or attorney arrive.
The Disability and Abuse Project has addressed these issues over the decades and has developed several products that could be used by any entity. We advocate for those with disabilities to have their rights respected when engaging with protective services and law enforcement agencies. Information about obtaining the law-enforcement training DVD’s and curriculum is available on the project’s website.
In a future article, I will discuss when people with autism are suspects and under investigation by law enforcement, and recommendations for individuals on the spectrum and their family members.
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 328 (1990).
Baladerian, N., Coleman, T., Stream, J. 2012 National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities, The First Report: Victims and Their Families Speak Out, 2013, Spectrum Institute Disability and Abuse Project, www.disabilityandabuse.org
Child Abuse and Neglect Disability Outreach Project (2000) http://www.disabilityandabuse.net/cando/
Disability and Abuse Project of Spectrum Institute, 1995, www.disabilityandabuse.org
Sobsey, D., (1994) Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities: The end of silent acceptance? Baltimore, Paul H. Brookes
Sullivan, P.M., Knutson, J.F., (2000) Maltreatment and disabilities: a population-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24(10), 1257-1273.
Teagardin J, Dixon, D, Smith, M, Granpeesheh, D. (2012) Randomized trial of law enforcement training on autism spectrum disorders, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 1113-1118.