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Interacting Safely with Police: Crucial Skills for Individuals Across the Spectrum

Parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have a long list of safety concerns, no matter the age of their children. Parents need to focus on creating a secure home environment, preventing wandering and teaching water safety. Yet there is another critical area of need that parents may not consider: teaching their child, teen or adult how to interact safely with law enforcement officials and other first responders.

Emily Iland, MA, ET

Emily Iland, MA, ET

One reason to pay attention to this issue is that individuals with ASD are more likely than typical peers to have an encounter with police – whether they need help, are the victim of a crime, are a witness, or a suspect. In addition, they may be at greater risk during an interaction with police. For example, a child with autism who has wandered away from home may be afraid of first responders and run away from them. A teen driver with ASD may be pulled over for speeding and reach into a bag for her license. An adult on the spectrum may find himself in the middle of a misunderstanding; when police are called the adult may become overwhelmed by the chaos and panic. More dangerous still, he might try to reach for an officer’s badge or gun.

These sobering examples illustrate the risks that those with ASD may face in everyday life, and the importance of being sure they know how to have safe encounters with police. The interaction in any situation can go better or worse, based on how prepared the person with autism is for the encounter.

“How prepared the person with autism for the encounter is?” you may be asking yourself. “Shouldn’t the police be trained to interact with people with ASD?” Yes. Peace officers should definitely be trained to recognize and respond to individuals with ASD. But remember that autism is an invisible disability, and even trained officers will not always know that someone has ASD. It is not enough to hope or expect that the police will always get it right. Training the police is only one side of the safety equation.

Many individuals with ASD don’t have the communication or social skills needed to interact safely with police. They may not understand police procedures and expectations. Tens of thousands of children with ASD who are growing up need to learn crucial safety skills that will work in their favor when they meet the police. They need to be explicitly taught what to do. This applies to individuals across the spectrum. It is especially true for individuals who are likely to be unaccompanied in the community or have other risk factors, like behavioral issues or limited communication.

Teach Essential Safety Skills

We all watch the news. More and more news stories across the country focus attention on individuals with ASD and related disabilities who have unsafe or even disastrous encounters with law enforcement officials. It is a fact that certain behaviors can escalate a police encounter. Other actions will help things go more smoothly. Teaching specific safety skills is a much better option than leaving safety to chance!

It is not hard to identify some of the factors that have caused escalation in police encounters. News stories reveal that some particular actions or “triggers” can cause the situation to worsen dramatically (both for the general public and individuals with disabilities). An example is hitting an officer (also known as assault). What follows is never good. It is important to identify triggers and carefully teach alternate behavior, what to do instead.

Start by “reframing” specific problematic behaviors into positive safety skills. The chart identifies the risky action and the reframed essential safety skills to teach. You can use this list to teach in a way that is well-matched to a particular individual’s developmental age, verbal ability and cognitive level. It’s ideal to teach these kinds of skills from an early age, because in fact most of the positive skills apply to other situations in everyday life. Also remember that it is never too late to start teaching these things, and it could make all the difference in the world.

The Value of Video Modeling

To learn these important skills individuals with ASD are likely to need to see different kinds of encounters with the police and practice safe behaviors, repeatedly. Learning through real-life experience, however, is much too risky! For these reasons, video modeling can be an excellent choice for teaching safety skills. Evidence shows that video modeling can be effective for learners across the spectrum, of all ages. Regardless of verbal or cognitive ability, anyone may benefit from video modeling (Reichow & Volkmar, 2010).

Individuals with ASD may already have negative images of police interactions in their heads from news stories, television or movies. The key to video modeling is presenting positive, specific skills to watch and practice. This can create a new “visual file” to remember and “pull up” if it is ever needed. In fact, after instruction through video modeling, viewers are more likely to remember what to do and say in real situations. Skills learned through video modeling have been found to generalize across different settings and conditions (Bellini & Akullian, 2007).

You can create your own short, simple safety videos using role play and a smart phone. The person with ASD does not have to be the one who is video-taped; research shows that individuals with ASD also respond positively to watching others (Reichow & Volkmar, 2010). You might like to use involve siblings or peers to create short video models of 1 to 2 minutes. Another option is using a professional video made expressly for this purpose, such as Be Safe the Movie. Exposure to positive models and the chance to practice or copy the models can help the viewer feel more confident about his or her ability to follow the models when needed (Bandura, 1996a; Bandura, 1996b).

Safety Tools for Self-disclosure

Another tool that parents can use to improve the odds of a positive encounter with police are known as disclosure options. Ask any officer or first responder and they will tell you: the more information they have, the better they can do their job. If police are informed about a person’s disability, they are more likely to choose effective response techniques. Because there are no physical “markers” to alert officers about someone’s autism, you may wish to select a useful tool to share information, enhance communication and improve outcomes.

It can be a great idea to ensure that the person carries or wears some kind of identification to help others understand their exceptional needs. This is especially crucial for those who cannot verbally identify themselves or ask for help.

  • Did you know that police and other first responders are trained to check a person’s wrist for medical alert jewelry? Many individuals with ASD could not tolerate old-school metal bracelets, but new materials might make this kind of disclosure tool a viable option. In case of emergency, caregivers may also want to wear medical alert jewelry with a message for first responders such as, “Primary caregiver of non-verbal adult with autism.”
  • Safety tools using QR Codes are also becoming popular. A QR code is a two-dimensional bar code that looks like a collection of black and white squares. When a QR Code is scanned using a camera or Smartphone, it connects to a message or data. If I Need Help is one example of a non-profit organization that uses QR Codes IDs for safety purposes. They have created a variety of wearable patches and tags, including shoe tags, which help identify lost individuals and connect first responders to caregivers.
  • Some people carry a self-disclosure card in their wallet, providing specific information about their disability, accommodations and caregiver contact information. Be Safe has created a customizable self-disclosure card that goes along with a lesson from the Movie: always ask before presenting a card to police; never reach into a pocket, bag, pants or purse unless the police tell you it’s OK to do so.
  • Do you live in a Yellow-Dot state? Many states have adopted this program in which a yellow dot is affixed to the rear window of a car or other vehicle. Should an accident occur, first responders who see the dot will check your glove compartment for the vital information you prepared about yourself (and other information you prepare, including information about your loved one with ASD who may or may not be in the vehicle at the time). This is another way to communicate and help first responders interact with the person with ASD when you are unable to assist.
  • Lastly, for verbal individuals, the voice is a powerful safety tool for self-disclosure. Helping a young person understand and accept their disability is one of the most important things anyone can do to promote safety and independence. The individual may need help to develop self-awareness (knowing what they need) and self-advocacy (speaking up for himself, asking for help). Both skills can improve safety in many different situations, including with police.

Relationships Matter

Being afraid of the police can be a real disadvantage when help is needed. Being overly-friendly (touching the police or their equipment) can be equally dangerous, even if a person has a disability. Getting to know local law enforcement officers can be a great way to promote mutual understanding. A good option is to go to the local police station during a calm, quiet time.

When the person with ASD meet officers, it can be a first step in developing a sense of familiarity, balanced with boundaries. Officers get a chance to meet someone with ASD in the community they serve, in advance of any emergency. They can see what the person looks like, hear how he communicates, see how he behaves, notice his sensory sensitivities, and get a sense of a good way to approach and interact with him.

When you visit the station, you may want to ask for the watch commander, the person in charge of the station at the time of the visit. The watch commander is in charge of all calls, and may remember meeting you and your child, teen or adult in the event of a call for help. The community services officer is also a great potential liaison.

Conclusion

Having read this article, hopefully you agree: safe interactions with police are too important to leave to chance! Doing nothing is not an option! Parents and educators can team up to prioritize safety, take advantage of safety tools, create relationships and help ensure that every individual with ASD learns to be safe, now and in the future.

BE SAFE The Movie is a 1-hour DVD that uses video modeling to show viewers how to interact with the police in everyday encounters. Made by and for young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders and similar conditions, BE SAFE The Movie’s seven Episodes demonstrate skills ranging from following instructions to the right to remain silent. Spanish subtitles, English captions.

BE SAFE Teaching Edition includes a specialized Companion Curriculum and BE SAFE The Movie. Seven Lessons matched to each Movie Episode include 300 pages of activities, visual supports and resources on a CD-Rom. Use Curriculum materials together with Movie Episodes to help diverse learners build understanding and safety skills at home, school or community programs. Also available in Spanish, CUíDATE: Guía de Enseñanza.

Emily Iland, M.A., is an award-winning author, advocate and researcher, and an adjunct professor in the department of special education at California State University, Northridge. She is the mother of a son on the autism spectrum, which inspired her to personally train thousands of peace officers about ASD. Emily worked with Joey Travolta and young adults with disabilities to create BE SAFE The Movie (https://besafethemovie.com). She travels across the country to bring the disability community and local police together to learn from one another at BE SAFE Interactive Movie Screenings. Contact her at emilyiland@gmail.com.

References

Bandura, A. (1996a). Social cognitive theory of human development. In T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), International encyclopedia of education (2nd ed., pp. 5513-5518) Oxford: Pergamon Press. Retrieved September 6, 2013 from www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura1996SCT.pdf

Bandura, A. (1996b). Regulation of cognitive processes through perceived self-efficacy. In G. H. Jennings & D. Belanger (Eds.), Passages beyond the gate: A Jungian approach to understanding the nature of American psychology at the dawn of the new millennium (pp. 96-107). Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster. [Reprint of Bandura, A. (1989)]. Retrieved September 6, 2013 from http://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura1989DP.html

Bellini, S. & Akullian, J. (2007). A meta-analysis of video modeling and video self-modeling interventions for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Exceptional Children, 73 (3), 264-287.

Reichow, B. & Volkmar, F. (2010). Social skills interventions for individuals with autism: Evaluation for evidence based practices within a best evidence synthesis framework. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities,(40)2, 149-166.

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