In The Politics of Autism, I discuss interactions between police and autistic people. Things can get out of hand.
Skylar [Armstrong, 17], who is on the autism spectrum, is learning how to interact with police officers through the use of virtual reality. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research (CAR) and the creator of Floreo, an immersive viewing/education system, are examining whether virtual reality can be an effective tool to teach people with autism how to respond to law enforcement officers they may encounter in the real world.
A 2016 Florida case that almost ended in tragedy was the inspiration for the Floreo system. In an incident that drew national outrage, a North Miami police officer fired three times at an autistic man holding a silver toy truck, which the officer said he mistook for a weapon. The shots missed the autistic man, but struck and wounded his caretaker, who was on the ground with his hands raised, shouting at the officer not to shoot.
Virtual reality training, researchers hope, can help people with autism learn to handle difficult encounters. A virtual encounter with an officer has the person with autism getting experience being questioned — What are you doing here? What is your name? — and give appropriate verbal responses. (Some programs go so far as to advise people with autism to come out and say it to an officer.)
“A virtual interaction is a really useful tool because people on the spectrum need more practice than other people, and police officers are not readily available to handle that,” said Joseph McCleery, a lead researcher with the study and executive director for academic programs in the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at St. Joseph’s University.