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Friday, November 20, 2015

Police and Autism in Virginia

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss encounters between police and people on the spectrum.

At WTKR-TV, Margaret Kavanagh reports:
Virginia Beach Police Department Lt. Shannon Wichtendahl has been on many calls for service involving people with autism.
“The challenge of going to a call for service with someone with autism is that there is no physical indicator to give us an idea that someone has that,” said Wichtendahl.
Michelle Hascall with the group Mea’Alofa Autism Support Center works to help children with autism in the community.

Hascall explains how people with autism differ greatly.

“It is a spectrum disorder so it can be a huge range, low functioning, high functioning, just a wide variety people and how autism manifests within those people can be very different.”

Experts say if a person with autism is involved in a crime or the victim of one - certain behaviors could be easily misinterpreted like avoiding eye contact.
Basic training manuals for police academies in Virginia mention autism several times – part of the lesson that falls under the mental illness overview–according to state police.

But advocates stress autism is not a mental illness.

“In treating it just like a mental illness, they are not taking into account the specific behaviors that we often see in individuals with autism. For example, the lack of language, the concern about children wandering to water, those types of things are very specific to autism.”

There is no doubt police are under extreme pressures, dealing with people with all sorts of conditions on a daily basis.

“I think they are doing the best that they’ve been trained to do , but we would just like to offer additional support to make it more effective,” said Hascall.
In The Politics of Autism, I write:
In response to such concerns, many police departments have trained officers and other first responders how to spot signs of autism and respond accordingly.[i] Some organizations have also published identification cards that ASD adults can carry in order to defuse potential conflicts. Virginia provides for an autism designation on driver licenses and other state-issued identification cards. Once again, however, the dilemma of difference comes into play. One autistic Virginian worries: “Great, so if I get into an accident, who’s the cop going to believe, the guy with the autistic label or the guy without it?” Clinical psychologist Michael Oberschneider is concerned about the understanding level of first responders: “I think many people still think of Rain Man or, more recently, the Sandy Hook Shooter, when they think of autism even though very few people on the autistic spectrum are savants or are homicidal and dangerous.”[ii]

[i] Mary Ann Spoto, “Autism Training For Law Enforcement In NJ Often Leads to Better Outcomes, Expert Says,” Newark Star-Ledger, March 18, 2014. Online:[ii] Greg Hambrick, “Recent Special `Autism’ Code on Virginia Driver’s Licenses and ID Cards Goes into Law: Helpful or Discriminatory for Individuals on the Autistic Spectrum?” Ashburn Patch, July 14, 2014. Online: