Keeping Persons with Autism Safe

By Dennis Debbaudt
[Excerpted from the "Advocate" (2nd Edition 2003), published by the Autism Society of America]

Much can go wrong during a field interaction between a child or adult with autism and a law enforcement professional. Incidents usually begin innocently –a nonverbal person with autism becomes irate – but then grow dangerous, as unusual and misunderstood behavior is interpreted as potentially harmful. Autism communities across the country are responding to the need for education of the public, law enforcement personnel and first responders by sponsoring autism recognition workshops.

For Persons with Autism

Knowledge is the single most important factor to helping prevent victimization of individuals with disabilities. It is critical that we teach people with autism about appropriate touch and appropriate vocabulary for reporting abuse or victimization.

If faced with sudden police interaction: Remain calm; do not attempt to flee or make sudden movements.

For Law Enforcement Officers

Police officers and first responders must attend autism recognition workshops to learn about unusual behaviors and characteristics that persons with autism can present in varying combinations and degrees. Because each individual is unique in levels of independence, it is almost impossible to make generalizations. Officers need to understand that most individuals with autism have basic verbal and nonverbal communication difficulties, may not recognize uniform, badge or police vehicle, nor understand what is expected of them, lack fear of danger, and have a high likelihood of victimization, as a result of bullying, teasing, or taunting.

Risks they should be prepared to identify immediately and deal with appropriately include:

Whenever a person with autism is taken into custody, it is critical for the first responder to follow procedure and documents that he or she has learned that the person has autism. Officers must know that the person with autism may have extremely low muscle tone, high tolerance for pain, or mechanical asphyxia which could require alternate restraining techniques; present dilemmas in the interrogation room, including possibility of false confession or misleading statements; lack credibility as a witness and will require alternate victim-witness interview techniques; should be segregated from the general prison population and seek counsel from the prosecuting attorney and an evaluation from a qualified health professional.

In these specially designed response training sessions, officers will learn options for addressing those Risks in order to avoid mistakes that could lead to lawsuits, negative media scrutiny, loss of confidence from the community, morale problems, and lifelong trauma for all involved.

Recommended Steps

Families and law enforcement agencies must work together with local advocacy groups, to bring formal and informal training to local law enforcement and first response professionals. School districts must make life skills training a priority for students with autism spectrum disorders. We must also empower our loved ones with autism by teaching them to understand the legal system to their fullest capabilities and to respond as appropriately as they are able when encountering law enforcement officials.


Read Dennis Debbaudt's "Avoiding Unfortunate Situations." To schedule a law enforcement or school resource workshop, call 772-398-9756, or by email. " Autism & Law Enforcement and Autism, Fire-Rescue EMS " is a fantastic training video for emergency responders, retailers, hospitals and more.


[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 9, Number 2 - Winter, 2003-2004]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.

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