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Autism and Law Enforcement: Why Understanding Matters

When faced with an emergency, every second counts. Appropriately responding can make all the difference in keeping everyone safe during a crisis. Remaining calm and effectively communicating is especially critical when law enforcement becomes involved. All too often, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle to respond correctly to emergency personnel like police officers or other responders due to their unique sensory, communication, and cognitive sensitivities. Similarly, for those working within the justice system, encountering neurodivergent individuals whose behavior may seem confusing or difficult to manage can lead to potentially unsafe scenarios between individuals with autism and law enforcement, which is vital to address. This blog post by ABA Centers of Florida offers an insightful and reliable resource to individuals with autism and their loved ones, improving potential interactions with law enforcement. Police officers can also benefit from this helpful guide and explanation about autism and law enforcement. With growing media attention depicting the dangerous reality of police interactions gone wrong, it is more important than ever for parents of children with autism to learn the basics of navigating these complicated situations and guide their children toward better outcomes. With our expert ABA guidance, caregivers can take the steps necessary to ensure everyone feels safe, confident, and respectful during emergencies involving law enforcement and other critical personnel. For more information about autism services at ABA Centers of Florida, click here. For more autism and ABA blogs, visit us here

Autism and How It Impacts Individuals

Autism is a developmental condition that often impacts how an individual communicates, interacts, and behaves. Though an individual can receive an autism diagnosis at any age, it typically manifests in early childhood. Some individuals with autism receive their diagnosis as early as 24 months. While everyone on the autism spectrum will have a distinct experience, expressing different strengths and areas needing support, most often, neurodivergent individuals experience challenges with social interaction and verbal/nonverbal communication. Additionally, many individuals with ASD exhibit repetitive behaviors or pervasive interests that can hinder life or their ability to explore their environment. To an onlooker or officers walking by, a person exhibiting autistic” behavior may seem like a danger or out of control, attracting unwanted attention or leading to misinterpretation. In most cases, navigating the world can be more difficult for an individual on the spectrum, including situations involving law enforcement, which may need addressing before community integration and increased independence is entirely possible.

The Importance of Understanding the Role of Law Enforcement

Building trust and comprehension between law enforcement and those with autism leads to safer outcomes for everyone. Law enforcement officers play an integral function in keeping our communities safe. They should be able to identify autism to minimize unnecessary danger or confusion. With an estimated 1 in 36 children likely eligible for an autism diagnosis, law enforcement must have the proper training and education to respond to neurodiversity as the group grows annually. When individuals with autism interact with police, it’s beneficial for all parties to understand the nuances and expectations of these encounters in the context of neurodiversity. By clearly explaining law enforcement’s purpose and role, individuals with autism better understand expectations, limiting overwhelm when approached or asked a question. While understanding expectations with autism can sometimes be complex due to the apprehension and anxiety many with the condition experience, preparing individuals for potential incidents involving law enforcement can reduce escalation leading to increased safety risks. By describing the purpose of law enforcement clearly and ensuring the individual understands, parents can feel safer knowing their loved ones will appropriately respond to officers during distress or danger. Additionally, neurodivergent individuals feel better when communicating with law enforcement when they understand the expectations and what’s standard during interactions.

Educating Law Enforcement about Autism Spectrum Disorder

To address these challenging issues and improve encounters between individuals with autism and law enforcement, officers should have a more robust understanding of how to approach and interact with neurodivergent individuals. Additionally, they should always utilize the least intrusive methods and securest techniques possible. By understanding the characteristics and behaviors common to those with autism, officers can learn how to communicate more efficiently and de-escalate situations respectfully. It’s also essential law enforcement consider the needs of people with autism to help to establish proactive solutions that ensure everyone’s safety when in contact. Most importantly, law enforcement officers must understand autism and how it presents, so they can ensure that individuals on the spectrum are not mistaken for being non-compliant, aggressive, or dangerous offenders, minimizing negative encounters. When everyone works together to promote a healthy understanding of law enforcement’s role, everyone is inclined to feel safer and accepted within their community.

Best Practices for Those with Autism and Law Enforcement

Families with loved ones on the autism spectrum often face unique challenges when educating them about law enforcement. Fortunately, positive news stories highlight the benefits of police officers understanding autism. In July 2023, a boy with autism went missing in Florida. Fortunately, he was found alive in a Miami river, where police officer Ernie Fernandez rescued him. The officer saved the boy after seeing him walking along the river and falling in. After removing the boy from the water and clearing his lungs, the boy responded by kissing the officer. At that moment, the officer recognized the boy’s autism, like his sons at home. This event is an excellent reminder for neurodivergent families to teach their loved ones with autism about law enforcement and the best practices for handling interactions. Fortunately, this boy was saved and didn’t resist the officer. Still, in cases where misunderstanding can happen, lack of education or autism awareness can lead to tragic outcomes.

ABA Therapy Improves Outcomes for Those with Autism

ABA therapy, also called Applied Behavior Analysis, is a vastly supported behavioral approach effective in supporting neurodivergent individuals as they develop the necessary skills to live as independently as possible. ABA therapy also helps their families understand and cope with life touched by neurodiversity. Teaching appropriate responses to people with autism is essential in helping them feel more in control and assured when emergencies arise. Caregivers can work towards safer experiences with their loved ones on the spectrum by raising awareness and teaching them critical life skills. Essential life skills covered in ABA sessions may include but are not limited to:
  • Recognizing authority figures in a crowd
  • Identifying a crisis
  • Dialing 911
Other helpful approaches to teaching individuals with autism about law enforcement include utilizing visual aids, role-playing, and familiarizing the learner with local law enforcement agencies in their area.

ABA Centers of Florida Supports Individuals with Autism and Their Families

ABA therapy plays a vital role in directly supporting individuals with autism while also creating a more inclusive and aware society. ABA Centers of Florida understands the urgent need to improve our world’s reception of autism spectrum disorder and how it affects those diagnosed. Additionally, we recognize the importance of keeping everyone safe and responsive, even when things get scary. Our expert ABA team works tirelessly to prepare your kiddo or teenager for whatever life brings, including demonstrating skills like alerting others of a crisis or calling out for help. Our compassionate ABA care enhances life for all our clients so that they can achieve long-term success in school, work, and other critical areas while remaining aware and alert to safety. If you or someone close is struggling with autism, contact us now to learn more about our options for ABA support. Call us at (772) 773-1975 or contact us here.

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