Law enforcement and autism are a volatile mix, and not an uncommon one. “It happens quite regularly, unfortunately,” says Lee Grossman, president of the Autism Society, a grassroots organization based in Bethesda, Md. Decades ago, people with autism and other developmental disorders tended to land in institutions, where they had little interaction with anybody other than family members and staff. Today, autistic children and adults live with their families, go to local schools and, in some cases, get jobs in their communities. The unfortunate downside to this independence, says Grossman, is that “many more individuals on the spectrum are having run-ins with the police department and others, and it’s generally not a very positive experience.”
Autism is a diverse condition, but it is characterized by behaviors—repetitive movements, poor eye contact, sensitivity to lights and noise—that can be misinterpreted as unusual and even disrespectful. Even innocent behaviors can be come off as malicious. Grossman tells the story of an autistic man who loved to ride the bus. One day, he started staring at a female passenger. “She told him to stop, he wouldn’t, and it got uglier and uglier,” says Grossman. Ultimately, the police were called. The man’s crime turned out to be an autistic trait: fixation on a single object. In this case, the man was fascinated by the woman’s dangling earring.
(I would nitpick one line in the story: "One of autism’s defining features is the inability to process even the most mundane social interactions." That is an overstatement. It is more accurate to say that autistic people have an impaired or limited ability to process social interactions, and the extent of this impairment can vary a good deal.)
Police training is one remedy for the problem. Here is an example from New Hampshire:
The Wilton Police Department launched a program during the first week in June called Autism Awareness 9-1-1, in which families of autistic children can let local emergency personnel know about the child’s condition.
The program, coordinated in the Nashua area by Gateways Community Services, is designed to help avoid any potential undue conflict from social misunderstandings between the child and the officer, particularly in instances with lost children where misunderstandings could create conflict.
Wilton Police Chief Brent Hautanen thinks the program will be useful.
“From a law enforcement perspective, the more information we have, the better our response is going to be,” Hautanen said. “If we have a child that’s missing that’s autistic, the faster we can get that information, the better we’ll be able to handle that call.”
Police in the area say they regularly interact with people with disabilities, including autism. But many officers said not having a proper understanding of the disability sometimes makes it difficult for them to do their jobs. That's why law enforcement officials from all over the state met Monday in Springdale for a special seminar on what autism is and how to work with individuals with autism. When police officers arrive at a scene, they need to be able to assess the situation, and that includes anyone who might be there when they arrive. A big part of that is recognizing those who might be autistic. Lt. Will Dawson from the Greenwood Police Department said, “I didn't know that it affects one out of every 110 people."
The disturbing case of Reginald Cornelius Latson, the autistic young man arrested in Virginia last month, has taken an even more disturbing turn. His mother, Lisa Alexander, told an internet-based radio audience Sunday night that Stafford County deputies used racist slurs against her son when they stopped and arrested him May 24.