Interactions between Individuals on the Autism Spectrum and the Police:

The Fears Of Parents, Caregivers, And Professionals

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

Using data from a survey of parents, guardians, caregivers, and professionals, we couple qualitative coding with descriptive statistics to show how common it is for respondents to fear future police contact for the individual with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the respondents’ lives and what inspires that fear. Nearly, 60% of respondents were reported being fearful of future police contact. Respondents characterized their fear in the following ways: the potential for police officers to misunderstand behaviors common amongst individuals with ASD generally and see those behaviors as non-compliance, ineffective, or difficult communication with minimally individuals with ASD and the emergence of aggressive behaviors from individuals with ASD during police contact. Respondents also expressed concern about the potential for police misuse of force. We conclude by discussing the ramifications of fear of police contact for police training as well as parents, caregivers, and individuals with ASD.

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

Discussion

Social and news media portrayals of police interactions with individuals on the autism spectrum paint a morose picture of how interactions go, often highlighting what appears to be police officers’ unnecessary or excessive use of force, and 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. 

Our study shows that parents, guardians, and care- givers are fearful of the individual with ASD in their life having police contact due to issues surrounding misunderstanding, communication, and aggression on the part of the police or the individual with ASD during police contact. 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—on how to approach a dynamic, emergency situations, like police con- tact. Below we discuss the three themes—misunderstanding, communication, and aggression— and their ramifications for policies and training.

  • The first theme, ‘misunderstanding’, is centered on the idea that the individual with ASD, the police officer, or both could misunderstand verbal, social, and emotional cues emanating from either actor.
  • The second theme, ‘communication’, surrounds issues of verbal ability, (non)responses to questions and comments, and the ability to answer questions during a police encounter.
  • The third theme, ‘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 of any potential and future contact with the police that the individual with ASD in their lives may have.