Given the heightened risk that individuals with autism face when they have contact with the police, this article highlights two valuable safety programs that bridge the gap between police and those with autism to build mutual understanding and improve outcomes in a police encounter.
Media outlets draw attention to situations where things have gone seriously wrong between police and community members. As the number of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) continues to grow, and more children than ever become adults, they may be at greater risk for a police encounter compared to the general population (Sobsey, 1994). When all parties are unprepared for such an encounter, the outcomes may be unsafe or even disastrous.
Training the Police
The obvious solution is to train the police to recognize and respond to people with ASD. The Experience Autism® Program was created specifically for this purpose. This empathy-based program offers simulation activities that help officers understand the communication, information processing, behavior, and fine motor difficulties common to autism.
It’s often difficult for officers to correctly identify an “invisible” disability. Experience Autism® simulations help officers identify the pattern of differences that constitute autism and distinguish it from mental illness or substance abuse. Officers learn how the features of autism can affect someone during an interaction. Most importantly, officers discover for themselves how to accommodate an individual with ASD during police encounters, whether the person has wandered, needs help, or is a suspect.
An independent researcher studied the effectiveness of Experience Autism® during three training events, with a robust total sample size of 195 officers (Medina del Rio, 2018). Results showed significant increases in officers’ knowledge of core features of ASD, confidence to interact with persons with ASD, and perceived practicality of providing accommodations. Officers also viewed the training as relevant to their work. This makes Experience Autism® the only independently-validated, evidence-based police training in the country. Experience Autism® is available to communities across the nation.
Training Youth and Adults with ASD
The story does not end there. Training the police is not enough. Features of autism may interfere with the ability to understand and follow commands as expected. Individuals with disabilities may unwittingly escalate an ordinary police encounter when they are not prepared and don’t know what to do.
News stories highlight specific behaviors that can lead to escalation for anyone: running or fighting with an officer, reaching in their own pocket/waistband or reaching for an officer’s equipment. BE SAFE The Movie was created to reframe these problematic behaviors into four positive ones: 1) Stay where you are when you meet the police; 2) Do exactly what the police tell you to do; 3) Make sure the police can see your empty hands; and 4) Keep your hands to yourself (don’t touch police equipment).
BE SAFE is a video modeling DVD that shows viewers what to expect and do in everyday police encounters ranging from inadvertently breaking the law, to a traffic stop, to being mistaken for a suspect. Actors with autism and related disabilities interact with real officers to model safe behavior. Viewers become familiar with police procedures, commands and a critical safety vocabulary of more than 100 words.
Video modeling has an extensive evidence base for teaching social skills (Reichow & Volkmar, 2010). In addition, BE SAFE is enhanced with evidence-based and promising practices to improve comprehension (Iland, 2011). These include priming or “frontloading” key concepts and vocabulary; use of visual supports; interviews to help with perspective-taking (social cognition); and summaries to capture main ideas.
BE SAFE can be used for individuals with autism, other disabilities, or no disability at all. The Movie has captions to ensure that Deaf individuals have access to key concepts and vocabulary. Captions can also help learners with ASD process information more effectively. The Movie has Spanish subtitles and the curriculum is available in Spanish to reach doubly at-risk populations.
BE SAFE Teaching Edition offers a differentiated Companion Curriculum with lessons matched to each episode of the Movie. Parents, educators and interventionists can select activities and materials to reach learners with diverse verbal and cognitive abilities. Students can use the curriculum scripts to practice and roleplay scenes from the movie.
BE SAFE the Movie and Companion Curriculum can also be used to help learners expand on concepts beyond the film, including preparing them for an evacuation or an active shooter situation. It can be streamed into classrooms or clinics in ABA format, via subscription from TeachTown. Students can go at their own pace, with progress tracked electronically. Teachers have access to curriculum materials to build key safety skills for everyone.
In addition to anecdotal success stories and feedback from teachers and students, BE SAFE is currently being studied for effectiveness as part of a National Institutes of Health study (Ravindran & McCleery, 2017). It will compare the effectiveness of BE SAFE to teach skills for interacting with the police (the control condition) to a different technology platform.
Bridging the Gap Between Police and the Autism Community
While training both officers and individuals with disabilities is essential, another key element is necessary to promote safety: relationships. Sometimes encounters go wrong because officers and community members are unfamiliar strangers. A BE SAFE Interactive Movie Screening (IMS) brings officers and individuals with ASD together to learn with and from one another.
At an IMS officers are paired with individuals on the spectrum. They watch scenes from BE SAFE together. Then the police practice specific skills with participants, such as asking for help, following instructions, and keeping hands to themselves. The event promotes mutual understanding, comfort, and trust. In addition to having fun and building safety skills, many participants report decreased fear and anxiety around interacting with police.
The police benefit from an IMS in multiple ways. It supports community policing, giving officers the opportunity to know and interact with diverse individuals in the community they serve. Second, the police consider it “eyes-on” training, witnessing how diverse people on the spectrum act, react and interact. Officers hear the range of communication styles. They can relate on a personal level and practice accommodating these differences.
Safety can’t be left to chance. Experience Autism® and BE SAFE are useful tools for addressing this critical need for individuals with ASD (and maybe even saving a life). After first participating in Experience Autism® and then being paired with an individual on the spectrum at an Interactive Movie Screening, one officer commented, “This is a game-changer.”
Emily Iland, MA, ET, 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. 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. For more information, visit www.BeSafeTheMovie and www.ExperienceAutism.com or contact Emily Iland, emily@BeSafeTheMovie.com, phone 661-347-8557.
Iland, E. (2013). Be Safe The Movie. Santa Clarita, CA: Camino Cinema.
Iland, E. (2014). Be Safe Teaching Edition. Santa Clarita, CA: Camino Cinema.
Iland, E. (2011). Drawing a Blank: Improving Comprehension for Readers on the Autism Spectrum. Lenexa, KS: AAPC.
Medina Del Rio, L. (2018) Experience Autism: Effectiveness of an autism training program for law enforcement officers. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 10791743. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/openview/ca3e906c9c235bc37bfbeb695e5dc662/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
Reichow B., & Volkmar F.R. (2010). Social skills interventions for individuals with autism: Evaluation for evidence-based practices within a best evidence synthesis framework. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40:149-66.
Sobsey, R. (1994). Violence and abuse in the lives of people with disabilities: The end of silent acceptance? Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.