When people on the Autism Spectrum have encounters with law enforcement, it often escalates into a struggle.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder don’t often react well to strangers and authoritative behavior. That combination in an officer, not to mention the strobe lights and sirens of emergency vehicles, can only serve to further stress them out and impede their ways of communicating. And stressed individuals can trigger authorities to use force in order to take control of the situation.
Police departments are urged to give their officers training on how to handle situations that involve individuals with ASD. While some show promise, it’s debatable whether training is enough, due to underlying causes of police violence.
As people with family and friends who are on the spectrum or caretakers of people with ASD, we need to come up with our own training and in-case-of-emergency practices so that we can be prepared for encounters with law enforcement.
Here are ways to prepare an emergency plan.
When doing risk assessment, it’s important to take into consideration individual characteristics of the person with ASD coupled with specialist assessments. Invite a specialist to your home and together, you can create a risk assessment document for you to study.
One example is to recognize the triggers of your family member or friend on the spectrum and be aware of them when in a public place. If some places heighten their stress, it’s best to avoid them entirely if possible. Always bring an object that calms them and keep them near if you can’t avoid the situation.
If you have a child with ASD, know that they are prone to wandering when outside, so be extra mindful and always keep them in your sight.
When dealing with law enforcement, it’s best to be extra clear. Individuals on the spectrum often have difficulty communicating and perhaps even more so during stressful situations.
A way to deal with this is to have an identification card at the ready that lets responders know that they are a person with ASD. The card can include medical, contact, and other relevant information, even tips for responders on how to deal with the situation: be patient, don’t touch unnecessarily, speak in a low, calm voice, etc.
It doesn’t have to be an official identification; you can make one yourself just for information purposes. It can be a card that’s kept in a wallet, worn around the neck or as a bracelet.
Creating a support network involves forming a group of people you trust and who know what to do in case of an emergency and you’re not immediately available.
Make sure the network you form is committed and able to do the tasks should they be needed. If there is hesitancy on their part, respect that and move on. You need to be sure that when the time comes, these people will follow through.
For the people who are willing, ask them if you can add their names and information to a list of contacts. Introduce them to the family member or friend with ASD and make sure the individual recognizes them and feels comfortable around them. Educate them on autism, routines, behavior changes, and what to do in case of an emergency.
If you have a child with ASD, consider creating a “local alert system” if the child goes missing.
We understand that this can be a great deal of work and people on the spectrum can’t be expected to get along with everyone on your network. With that in mind, consider making a tier out of your network, from people who are the next best thing to contact after you to people who can provide supplemental help.
Having said all that, the truth is, the responsibility shouldn’t be on ordinary citizens to make sure their encounters with law enforcement go smoothly. Still, it’s best to be prepared and to spread awareness as much as we can.
Encourage awareness and training among your local law enforcement, fire, and Emergency Medical Services. If you know or are close to someone in any of these areas, talk to them about how training can increase their effectiveness, expedite emergency assistance, and assure the safety of all involved.
You can start small within your circle and gradually move on to your neighborhood and eventually your town.
You don’t have to do all this alone. Talk to specialists and other existing advocates, even to other families who have members on the spectrum.
It’s a long road ahead to having complete trust in our emergency responders and services when it comes to our atypical members of society but there are existing programs already doing the work and people who are willing to help are all around.