Law Enforcement and Autism

Calls related to an autistic individual can be challenging at best. Recognizing autism, understanding the risks, and learning methods of interaction is critical for a successful crisis resolution.


It started out as a Peeping Tom call in progress.  Two units respond, the suspect is sitting on the porch.  As officers approach a teenage boy seems indifferent, like he is in his own little world.  Suddenly he reaches for one of the officer’s shiny badges.  The cops go hands on and suddenly all hell breaks loose.  Back up arrives code three which only makes matters worse.  The light bars are flashing, sirens wailing, everyone is screaming. The suspect is more than resistant, appears completely oblivious to pain, and is attempting to flee.  A responding medic notices a medical bracelet on the suspect’s risk…he is autistic. Calls related to an autistic individual can be challenging at best.  Recognizing autism, understanding the risks, and learning methods of interaction is critical for a successful crisis resolution.

Autism is a complex developmental disability; a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain.  Autism, sometimes called “classical autism”, is the most common condition in a group of developmental disorders known as the autism spectrum disorders.  Persons with autism are estimated to have up to seven times more contacts with law enforcement agencies during their lifetimes.  Yet, only 20% of patrol responses related to autistic individuals are related to criminal activity.  Interacting with a child or adult who has an autism spectrum disorder will challenge your experience, training and patience.

Autism interferes with the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. It typically appears during the first three years of life. The disorder makes it hard difficult to communicate with others and relate to the outside world.  Autism affects each individual differently, many function well in society; they may have regular employment in a supervised or unsupervised workplace. They may live in traditional, assisted living homes, or have a caregiver with them at all times.  There are degrees of autism which are usually described as low or high functioning.

Autism is the fastest-growing American developmental disability, with an annual growth rate of between 10-17%.  The prevalence is estimated at 1 in 88 births, and is 4X more prevalent in boys than in girls.  By way of comparison, this is more children than are affected by diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or Down syndrome, combined. This disorder knows no racial, ethnic, income, educational, life-style or social boundaries.  As a law enforcement officer you will probably handle many calls related to autistic individuals.

It is crucial to remember that autism is not a mental illness; however, individuals with autism can develop mental illness just as anyone in the population can.

Types of Calls for Service

Contact with an autistic individual may occur anywhere in the community.  The initial call for assistance to law enforcement may first appear as a domestic disturbance, or child abuse, as a caregiver is forcing the individual into a home or a car.  There will be calls to assist the FD for medical assistance; approximately 25% of individuals with autism will have seizures by the age of 21.  Other calls may involve reports of a suspicious person related to strange behavior or trespassing.  There are prowler calls, as an autistic individual enters another person’s home, car or business.  They may peer into windows.  Of course there will be the welfare checks, as they may run into oncoming traffic.  There will be calls for a missing person at risk; children and adults with autism are prone to escape when left unattended or when care providers turn their backs.  Tragically, these so-called runners are often attracted to water sources such as pools, ponds, and lakes. Without a fear of real danger and in spite of not knowing how to swim, they jump in.

Recognizing Persons with Autism

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