2020 | Police & Fire

Panel promotes positive interactions between police and people with autism

Officers and advocate field questions, encourage care and awareness

During an online forum, police officers and advocates for people with autism offer advice for fostering safe interactions between law enforcement and community members with intellectual disabilities. Top row, from left: Tom Whalen, who is on the autism spectrum and advocates for others who are; Officer Alex Barbour, a Baltimore County police school resource officer; Officer Laurie Reyes, founder of the Montgomery County police Autism/Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and Alzheimer’s and Dementia Outreach Unit. Bottom row, from left: Rob Long, a board member for Pathfinders for Autism; Private 1st Class Herman Hodges with the Maryland-National Capital Park Police in Montgomery County.

Screenshot from online forum

When police officers respond to a call involving a person with an intellectual disability, the situation can turn tense and even hostile, particularly when an officer is unaware. In particular, some common behaviors of people with autism can be misconstrued as acts of aggression or noncompliance.

Montgomery County police have a specialized unit devoted to preparing officers to recognize signs that someone might have autism. The Montgomery County police Autism/Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and Alzheimer’s and Dementia Outreach Unit also helps prepare people with autism and their caregivers for safe interactions with police.

Montgomery County police officers and an individual with autism participated in a webinar on Oct. 26 outlining how law enforcement and people with autism and other developmental disabilities can safely interact.

A 2017 study found that about 20 percent of youths with autism had been stopped and questioned by police before reaching age 21.

These interactions can quickly turn dangerous. Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder, is a range of conditions, including challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

In interactions with police, someone with autism might not make eye contact, might stand too close to the officer, or might not follow the officer’s commands. On the other side, an officer unaware the person has autism might react aggressively and escalate the situation.

For people with special needs, Pathfinders for Autism (PFA), a Maryland-based autism resource center, has created guidelines for how to interact with police. PFA trains individuals with developmental disabilities to show their hands to police officers, not touch a police officer, not run away and disclose their condition to the officer.

PFA and the Montgomery County police Autism/Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and Alzheimer’s and Dementia Outreach Unit co-hosted the Oct. 26 webinar.

Panelists included Officer Laurie Reyes, founder of the special Montgomery County unit; Tom Whalen, who is on the autism spectrum and advocates for others who are, as well; Private 1st Class Herman Hodges with the Maryland-National Capital Park Police in Montgomery County; and Officer Alex Barbour, a Baltimore County police school resource officer.

Rob Long, a board member for PFA, moderated the panel.

The purpose of the webinar was to foster discussion between police officers, people with autism, and their parents or caregivers, said Shelly McLaughlin, who manages PFA’s first responder training division. The panel recognized that police officers can be intimidating to people on the autism spectrum.

Whalen said he has heard both “horror stories” of interactions between police officers and people with autism and positive accounts of officers helping people with autism.

He said police should ask questions as they approach someone who might have autism before attempting to make an arrest.

“Get to know the person,” Whalen said. “Autism is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis.”

The webinar focused on how having successful interactions between people with developmental disabilities and police relies on training for all parties involved. For the officers, this includes being attuned to signs that a person might have autism, then reacting appropriately to avoid escalating the situation.

About 45 people attended the online forum. Some asked questions during a public comment period.

The most commonly asked question came from parents asking how to protect their child with autism from dangerous encounters with police. Parents outlined concerns that police officers might react violently if their child reached into their pocket to grab a fidget or cellphone and the officer thought they were reaching for a weapon.

Hodges explained that training for police officers is crucial in balancing officer safety and protecting the person with autism during these interactions. An officer not trained to consider that someone might have autism might think the person is not complying and refusing to take their hands out of their pockets.

When Reyes leads officer training, she teaches about the prevalence of autism, so that officers consider whether someone might have special needs before reacting to a call. Autism currently affects about 1 of every 54 children in the U.S.

The panel also focused on how caregivers or parents of someone with autism can protect that individual from a confrontation with law enforcement officers. This includes offering insight into the person’s triggers.

In recent years, the number of people with autism has increased and the population of people with developmental disabilities has aged, Reyes said. These developments can complicate interactions with law enforcement. Officers might be more inclined to think an adult is being aggressive or noncompliant.

In 2005, Reyes founded the Montgomery County police Autism/Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and Alzheimer’s and Dementia Outreach Unit.

Reyes started the program after noticing an uptick in the number of calls from people reporting that someone with autism had wandered off and was missing. She realized that officers needed to do more than locate the person. They needed to be trained in how best to interact with people with special needs.

Now, they also focus on education, outreach and empowerment. They try to prepare caregivers and community members for how to respond in the event someone with autism wanders off. Suggestions include preparing photographs of the person for police to use, prepping neighbors to look out for the person and installing an alarm to prevent wandering.

The unit holds presentations in which people who have autism or other cognitive disabilities can instruct officers and caregivers.

“The program grew from there,” Reyes said. “We’re kind of a unique program here in Montgomery County.”

Reyes said the unit is the first of its kind in the U.S. It receives three to eight calls each week regarding people with special needs who require assistance. The situations range from mundane to severe, Reyes said. The unit responds to calls and follows up with caregivers after answering a call.

“We all need to work together in trying to understand each other,” McLaughlin said. “It’s also for individuals to understand that they, too, have a responsibility to understand some of the rules that they need to follow to stay safe to the best of their ability.”