In The Politics of Autism, I discuss interactions between police and autistic people. Police officers need training to respond appropriately. When they do not, things get out of hand.
Before the deputies even started the simulation exercises last month, they were armed with new training on how to recognize someone who might be in a mental health crisis or have a developmental disability, such as autism.
The guidance in the latter is particularly remarkable. While police departments across the country have boosted their mental health training in recent years, training in how to handle people with autism and other developmental disabilities is relatively uncommon, according to Kate Movius of Autism Interaction Solutions, who conducted the autism training in Industry.
But it is becoming increasingly important, Movius said. Autism is on the rise and so are the number of encounters people with the disorder have with the police, as victims and suspects. People with developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to encounter law enforcement than other people, she said.
That is precisely why Industry Councilwoman Cory Moss, whose son has autism, asked Industry to fund the specialized training.
“I just have heard about these situations with police and I think, ‘God, it sure sounds like it could have been someone with autism,’ ” she said.
Because autism isn’t often readily visible, getting officers to recognize the signs is key, Movius said, particularly because some of the behaviors — slowness to respond to directions, unwillingness to communicate — can escalate an already tense situation.
Industry deputies were trained to use different strategies to respond, such as: slowing the situation down, assigning one person to talk, involving the caretaker of the subject/suspect, speaking slowly and simply, and offering a smartphone or pen to someone who is completely non-verbal.
“Officers tell me they approach situations completely differently now,” Movius said. “It is more, ‘how can I help this person’ and not as much ‘this person is being noncompliant.’ ”