Interactions between Individuals on the Autism Spectrum and the Police:

The Fears Of Parents, Caregivers, And Professionals

This article was previously published in

Authors: Dr. Jessica Herbert, Danielle Wallace, David Tyler, Elizabeth McGee-Hassrick


Using data from a survey of parents, guardians, caregivers, and professionals, IDEA Analytics couples qualitative coding with descriptive statistics to show for the commonalities regarding respondents fearing future police contact for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and what inspires that fear. 

 The fear regarding future police contact for individuals with ASD is characterized by the possibility of police officers misunderstanding behaviors common amongst individuals with ASD as individuals being non-compliant, ineffective, or having difficulty communicating, as well as the emergence of aggressive behaviors from individuals with ASD during police contact. Respondents also expressed concern about the potential for police misuse of force.  

IDEA Analytics discusses the data aimed at gaining a basic understanding of the ramifications of fear of police contact for police training, as well as for parents, caregivers, and individuals with ASD. 

Figure 1: Fear of police contact for individuals on the autism spectrum by previous police contact

“This survey is the first to capture qualitative information linked to survey data about police contact with individuals on the autism spectrum with other studies in this area that were conducted using interviews and smaller samples” (Railey et al. 2020, p. 12).


Social and news media portrayals of police interactions with individuals on the autism spectrum paint a morose picture of how interactions go, often highlighting police officers’ unnecessary or excessive use of force, negative—and sometimes, deadly—outcomes of the encounter. In turn, it is unsurprising that 60% of respondents reported being fearful of future police contact for their loved one with ASD.  

IDEA Analytics’ study shows that parents, guardians, and caregivers are fearful of the individual with ASD in their life experiencing police contact due to issues surrounding misunderstanding, communication, and aggression. These fears, whether actualized or not, are informative for developing training—be it training for the police and other first responders, individuals with ASD, or those that care for them. 

IDEA Analytics discusses three themes of relevance and their ramifications for both policies and training: 

  •  ‘Misunderstanding’ is centered on the idea that both the individual with ASD and the police officer could misunderstand verbal, social, and emotional cues emanating from either actor. 
  •  ‘Communication’ surrounds issues of verbal ability, (non)responses to questions and comments, and the ability to answer questions during a police encounter. 
  •  ‘Aggression’ is simple: many respondents expressed concern that the individual with ASD will respond to various aspects of the interaction with aggressive or defiant behaviors potentially leading to negative outcomes, such as police use of force. 

These three themes are not mutually exclusive. Overlapping themes point to the idea that respondents often have multidimensional concerns regarding any potential and future contact with the police that the individual with ASD in their lives may have. 

“Consequently, police training should acknowledge how stress-inducing an encounter may be for individuals with ASD given that they function best with knowable, well-rehearsed, and scheduled daily circumstances”


The completion of this survey-based report was intended to educate and inform the public about what inspires fear of police contact for individuals with ASD, as well as to provide proactive strategies for law enforcement to implement in future interactions with individuals with ASD.  

This case study provides means of avoiding and reducing misunderstandings in encounters with the police such as, obtaining better information about individuals prior to arriving on-scene, acknowledging how stress-inducing encounters may be for individuals with ASD, and training officers on the characteristics of ASD to avoid aggressive responses. 

We look forward to supporting law enforcement in their efforts to educate themselves and their officers on ASD training. We are grateful to the Autism Society of Southern Arizona and Arizona Autism Coalition for allowing us to conduct research during their events, as well as to our data collectors, and to the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Solutions.  

Download the full case study below to read survey-based research regarding police interactions with individuals with ASD, and for comprehensive solutions for your organization that drive real change in real time, contact us HERE