Imagine for a moment that you’re a police officer responding to a report of unruly teens at a local park. When you arrive, the first boy you see starts acting suspicious – he refuses to make eye contact, he’s repeating a nonsensical phrase and he won’t answer any questions. Maybe he tries to run away or, worse, tries to grab at something shiny on your uniform – your badge, your keys or your gun.
It’s this scenario, and seemingly endless variations, that often keep the parents of children with autism up at night because this boy’s “suspicious behaviors” could simply indicate that he is on the spectrum.
“Unfortunately, there do tend to be more run-ins between individuals on the spectrum and police,” says Marci Wheeler with the Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA) at Indiana University. “Sometimes someone is acting loud and people get worried, or with many people with autism being naive, they can be taken advantage of – ‘Joey, can you take this package to that guy over there?’ – and then the police get involved.”
The IRCA has spearheaded training options to help police and first responders learn how to recognize and respond appropriately to individuals on the spectrum, but that’s only one part of the puzzle. There are things that parents can do to help their child learn how to be comfortable around police officers and be able to communicate that they are on the spectrum.
Meet police in a positive setting
Introducing a child to local police in a low-stress environment is a good first step, experts say.
“We welcome any child and parent to stop by the police department or reach out to our officers when they see them out and about, as long as they are not on a call for service,” says Lt. Dave Dunbar with Fishers Police, where officers complete annual mandatory training in communicating with individuals with special needs.
Parents can call ahead to set up a time to visit their local police station or seek out police at community events. Modeling how to interact with police can help a child on the spectrum understand how they should interact with officers, too. “Any opportunity to interact before we have a bad day, I think that’s priceless,” stresses Sgt. Pete Fleck with Brownsburg Police, where officers also have annual training.
Practice what to do
Take time to practice with your child how to interact with police. Parents can find social stories and videos on the topic online, including the popular “BE SAFE The Movie,” a seven-episode series featuring scenes with real police officers to show children what to expect in different situations. Parents can buy the movie online (besafethemovie.com) or ask if their local advocacy organization has a copy.
“It’s usually not top of mind for parents to practice those interactions because they have so much going on, but just as you practice what to do if your child gets lost or can’t find you in the grocery store, there are opportunities to practice how to talk with police,” Wheeler says.
Create a handout card
Dennis Debbaudt, a Florida-based author, law enforcement trainer and father of a young man with autism, encourages parents of young people on the spectrum to develop a handout card to give to police.
Cards can be generic or personalized, and should include information about the child’s diagnosis, how it could affect his or her interactions with police and parent contact information. Debbaudt notes that it’s also important that parents practice with their child the best way to tell an officer that they have a handout card, avoiding sudden movements and getting permission first to reach for the card.
“(The individual should) verbally let the officer know that (they) have autism or Asperger Syndrome and have an information card for them to read. If nonverbal, or if sudden interactions render you nonverbal or mute, consider using a medical alert bracelet for an officer to read that alerts them to your condition and the fact that you have an information card,” Debbaudt writes. More tips can be found on Debbaudt’s website at autismriskmanagement.com.
Although parents will still likely worry about what may happen if their child is in a situation where the police are involved, taking these proactive steps can help everyone feel more safe and prepared.