Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Rights and Challenges for Autistic People with Communication Disabilities in the Legal System

Police should be the last resort…. I shouldn’t have to call the police if my son is having a meltdown. When I get up in the morning, I say, “Thank God he’s not dead,” and “Thank God I’m not dead.”

Kerima Çevik, activist and parent of a nonspeaking autistic son (Sokol, 2021)

CommunicationFIRST is the only nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and advancing the civil rights of the more than 5 million children and adults in the United States who, due to disability or other condition, cannot rely on speech alone to be heard and understood.

Autistic people and their loved ones, like Kerima Çevik, often worry whether today, tomorrow, or the next will see unwanted contact with the legal system. Being autistic in public can be criminalized. Although our legal system is designed to develop, enforce, and secure civil rights for all people, too often that very system discriminates against, dismisses, or otherwise mistreats nonspeaking autistic people and others with communication disabilities.

One example is when law enforcement officers perceive autistic people to be “noncompliant” or under the influence of drugs or alcohol (Brown et al., 2022; CommunicationFIRST, 2023). Another is when autistic parents and other parents with disabilities are subjected to evaluations by mental health professionals and denied custody of their children because of their disability (Chapter 7: The Family Law System: Custody and Visitation, 2015). Another is when judges terminate the rights of autistic adults by subjecting them to guardianship without considering less restrictive alternatives like supported decision making (Swadley, 2022; National Resource Center, 2023).

Nonspeaking autistic people, as well as autistic people who use both augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and speech, experience additional hardships. Our speech-centric society is not yet accustomed to the various types of AAC that may be used by people with speech-related disabilities. Alternative forms of communication might be viewed as suspicious or eccentric and impact the outcomes of interactions with people who use speech to communicate (Calton & Hall, 2021). For instance, an autistic person’s efforts to communicate with a police officer who is unfamiliar with AAC or other types of autistic communication might lead to additional misunderstanding and result in the autistic person experiencing, at a minimum, frustration, anxiety, and sensory difficulties (Holloway et al., 2020). But autistic people’s experiences with legal system professionals do not have to be this negative. By examining why these misunderstandings occur, by equipping legal system professionals with greater familiarity with the various ways people with speech disabilities communicate, and by highlighting the communication rights nonspeaking autistic people have under United States law, we can help reduce the barriers to justice that are commonplace today.

Most of the societal barriers disabled people experience, including within our legal system, are rooted in ableism –discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities (Friedman & Owen, 2017; Rajkumar, 2022). People with significant speech disabilities are routinely abused, segregated, and denied access to AAC (CommunicationFIRST et al., 2021; Patten, 2022; Zimmerman, 2022; Kapp, 2023). Beginning in preschool, nonspeaking autistic people are almost always placed in segregated classrooms away from nondisabled students, and sometimes are not even taught to read or write (Open Society Foundations, 2018). Thus begins what becomes for many a lifelong denial of human rights (CommunicationFIRST et al., 2021). Many nondisabled people assume that people with significant speech disabilities, in particular, are incapable of making decisions and therefore treat people with speech disabilities like young children regardless of their age. If our educational system were more inclusive, autism would be stigmatized less, and nondisabled people would learn from an early age about human neurodiversity and how to co-exist and accept autistic people for who they are.

It is no surprise that many autistic people, especially those who are multiply marginalized (e.g., people of color, women, or gender-nonconforming people), mistrust police and others within the legal system. If one hasn’t been around nonspeaking autistic people much, they will carry preconceived notions and misunderstandings due to stereotypes. This is the recipe for negative encounters (Parry & Huff, 2022). CommunicationFIRST Policy Director Bob Williams has stated, “Oppression takes place when we are not heard and are not seen.” By fully including autistic people and others who have speech disabilities in society from a young age, including at school, nondisabled people will gain a better understanding of how to communicate in diverse ways and with diverse groups of people. Over time, people in the legal system – police, attorneys, and judges – will gain greater cultural competence in interacting with people with significant speech-related disabilities.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA, is a federal law that every autistic person and their loved ones should know about (“Introduction to the Americans With Disabilities Act,” 2023). Title II says that people with disabilities have the right to equal access to state and local public services. That means that they have the right to accommodations that may be needed to allow them to have the same level of access and services as someone else without disabilities. For example, nonspeaking autistic victims and witnesses have the right to testify with any reasonable accommodations that might be needed to make sure they have the same opportunity to testify as a nondisabled victim or witness does (“Child Victims With Disabilities: A Guide for Prosecutors,” 2022). The ADA has a special focus on ensuring access to effective communication. In interactions with state and local public entities, including schools, courts, and law enforcement, people with communication disabilities have the right to understand what is being said to them, and the right to be understood when they communicate. If a person needs communication “auxiliary aids and services” to understand and be understood, with few exceptions, they have the right to request and receive those accommodations (Mid-Atlantic ADA Center, 2017).

People with developmental disabilities, including autism, are seven times more likely to encounter police than people without disabilities (Larson, 2021). Police officers should know how to recognize when someone has a communication disability and how to comply with the ADA to try to bridge any communication gap with the other person. In May 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Statement of Interest in Lou v. Lopinto, a lawsuit filed by parents of an autistic teenager who died while officers in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, were responding to a sensory episode the child was having (Clarke et al., 2023). The lawsuit claimed that officers violated the ADA by discriminating against the teenager’s disabilities. In its Statement of Interest, the DOJ confirmed that law enforcement agencies can violate the ADA by failing to provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from their services during emergency calls, and that “exigent circumstances” should not provide an excuse for failing to do so. In that situation, the officers should have reasonably accommodated the teenager’s disability while interacting with the teenager, and before restraining him. State and local public entities may be able to avoid such tragic outcomes by taking deliberate steps to find a way to effectively communicate with the nonspeaking autistic person. That may mean consulting with the person’s loved one, disability support professional, or other service provider to learn what the person may be communicating when they act a certain way, how best to communicate ideas with the person, and how the person needs to be accommodated more generally.

Other professionals in the state and local legal system also need to be aware of and comply with disability rights laws. Court personnel and judges who encounter people with speech-related disabilities, whether they are attorneys, jurors, witnesses, litigants, family members, spectators, or otherwise, must provide reasonable accommodations to ensure equal access to the court system for those people (Guide to Judiciary Policy, Vol. 5, Ch. 2 § 255.10, n.d.). Every state has a federally mandated, independently operated Protection & Advocacy System that aims to empower people with disabilities and advocate on their behalf (Protecting Rights and Preventing Abuse of People With Disabilities, 2023). If you are an autistic person who believes that your rights were violated, you have the option of reaching out to your state’s Protection & Advocacy System for support or filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division (NDRN Member Agencies, n.d.; File a Complaint, n.d.).

CommunicationFIRST recently received seed funding to develop several toolkits on the communication rights of people with significant speech-related disabilities in the legal system. Be sure to sign up for updates (at the bottom of the home page of our website) or email us at for more information (CommunicationFIRST, n.d.).


Administration for Community Living. (2023, May 16). Protecting Rights and Preventing Abuse of People with Disabilities.

Brown, L.X.Z., Shetty, R., Scherer, M., & Crawford, A. (2022). Ableism and Disability Discrimination in New Surveillance Technologies. Center for Democracy & Technology.

Calton, S., & Hall, G. (2021). Autistic adults and their experiences with police personnel: a qualitative inquiry. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 1–16.

Clarke, K., Bond, R., Raish, A., Westfall, E., & Rost, C. (2023, May 15). Statement of Interest-Lou v Lopinto. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

CommunicationFIRST. (n.d.). CommunicationFIRST.

CommunicationFIRST. (2023, February 14). Police Brutality: A (Speech) Disability Concern.

CommunicationFIRST, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, & Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. (2021, February 12). LISTEN to Us: A Toolkit About Nonspeaking Autistic People, Meltdowns, and Seclusion and Restraint. CommunicationFIRST.

File a Complaint. (n.d.).

Friedman, C., & L. Owen, A. (2017). Defining Disability: Understandings of and Attitudes Towards Ableism and Disability. Disability Studies Quarterly, 37(1).

Holloway, C. A., Munro, N., Jackson, J. E., Phillips, S., & Ropar, D. (2020). Exploring the autistic and police perspectives of the custody process through a participative walkthrough. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 97, 103545.

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Kapp, S. (2023). Profound Concerns about “Profound Autism”: Dangers of severity scales and functioning labels for support needs. Education Sciences, 13(2), 106.

Larson, S. (2021, May 27). It’s Vital That Police Better Understand Autism Spectrum Disorder. HealthCity.

Mid-Atlantic ADA Center. (2017). Effective Communication. ADA National Network.

National Council on Disability. (2015). Chapter 7: The Family Law System: Custody and Visitation.

National Disability Rights Network. (n.d.). NDRN Member Agencies.

National Resource Center on Supported Decision-Making. (2023, March 13). Supported Decision-Making | National Resource Center.

Open Society Foundations. (2018, March 29). The U.S. Education System Is Failing Nonspeaking Autistic People. Medium.

Parry, M. M., & Huff, J. (2022). Divergent perspectives: autistic adults’ perceptions of the police. Policing: An International Journal, 45(3), 509–523.

Patten, K. K. (2022). Finding Our Strengths: Recognizing Professional Bias and Interrogating Systems. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 76(6).

Rajkumar, S. (2022, August 8). How to talk about disability sensitively and avoid ableist tropes. National Public Radio.

Sokol, L. (2021, May 17). If Police Training Can’t Protect Disabled Black Women, What Will? – Women’s eNews. Women’s eNews.

Swadley, H. (2022). How #FreeBritney Exposes the Need to Disable the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Mitchell Hamline Law Journal of Public Policy and Practice, 43(1), 1.

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. (n.d.). Guide to Judiciary Policy, Vol. 5, Ch. 2 § 255.10.

Zero Abuse Project. (2022). Child Victims with Disabilities: A Guide for Prosecutors.

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One Response

  1. Ericka says:

    I’m having problems with a women harassing my autistic daughter on purpose all the time she is a neighbor and we have no vehicle so it hard to go anywhere without her harassing her my daughter is scared of dogs and this lady knows it so she purposeful brings the dog around to scare her what can I do about this

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