On Autism and Law Enforcement

Apologies for the lack of posts recently – I’ve had a lot of stuff on my plate. Thankfully finals are nearly done and I should be able to resume posting somewhat often within a week. To tide you over until then, I have here part of a big semester-end project for my criminal justice class. The assignment was to turn in a paper and give a presentation on a current issue pertaining to law enforcement that was of personal interest to me…yeah, it does seem rather obvious that I wrote about autism, doesn’t it?

Police officers, state troopers, and other law enforcement officials have long since worked out a system for dealing with individuals in potentially dangerous situations. There are guidelines to be followed that will generally direct everyone involved toward a peaceful resolution. But there’s a serious flaw with these guidelines; they assume everyone to be reading out of the same playbook. In particular, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders tend to fall well outside the guidelines of what many would believe to be reasonable behavior, through no fault of their own, and run into conflict with officers who have no clue of how to interact with them the way everyone else does.


Autism Spectrum Disorders (hereafter ASD) are something of a new issue facing law enforcement communities. Previously they were split into two relatively broad categories: autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The differences between the two could be summarized as Asperger’s being a milder form of autism; individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s had a higher chance of being able to be self-sufficient and generally capable of functioning as individuals in society than autistic people. The most recent edition of the DSM, a catalogue of all currently-recognized mental disorders, has discontinued the use of the name Asperger’s Syndrome in favor of merging the two diagnoses.


However, the symptoms have not changed. ASD is, ultimately, a sensory disorder. In most people, a part of the brain autonomously throttles the sensory input we are bombarded with on a daily basis – random sights, sounds, sensations and scents that it deems unimportant are filtered out and simply not registered. When afflicted with ASD, however, this part of the brain simply does not work. Sensory input has two settings; floodgates wide open, inundating the brain with such a barrage of information that it is simply overwhelmed – or near-complete shutdown with very, very little getting through to the conscious mind. In the former state, the individual quickly becomes exhausted because of the sheer volume of stimuli causing a constant feeling of being threatened – which has even led to many individuals on the spectrum exhibiting symptoms consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Thus many patients of ASD default to the latter state, seeming disinterested and failing to develop communication and observation skills the rest of us would deem elementary.


ASD patients typically exhibit obsessive behaviors, rigid adherence to rituals and regimes of the individual’s own devising, and poor to nonexistent social skills. The rate at which ASD has been diagnosed has skyrocketed in recent years, though this is not as alarming as it may seem. Rather than the incidence of the disorder going up, it is far more likely that psychiatric professionals are simply more aware of the disorder and therefore diagnosing it more frequently. But the fact remains that ASD patients are a growing issue facing law enforcement officials, currently occurring in 0.6% of the population and likely to increase further.


The ways in which limited communication skills can bring an ASD patient into conflict with police are myriad; in a situation where officers require complete control of the situation and compliance from people involved. If one of those people happens to have ASD, officers might not get the cooperation or even respect they need. An autistic individual may simply do their best to tune the officers out and go about their business despite the intrusion, not wanting to face the idea of deviating from their set routine. Failing that, they may misinterpret the officer’s actions as a direct threat against them, particularly if the officer is asking for something out of what they consider to be their comfort zone. In the mind of an ASD sufferer, the things they do all the time are what they know and they’re an island in a sea of turmoil and noise that is the rest of the world. Any attempt to remove them from it will be viewed as an existential threat, as though something were trying to drag them down into the ocean off of their safe island. They will react accordingly, fighting tooth and nail (sometimes literally) to remain within their safe zone. This form of interaction can be particularly frustrating for an officer who is just trying to do his job and doesn’t understand why this one person is so stubborn in refusing to help. Anger and resentment mount on both sides, and nothing good comes of it.


It gets even worse if an autistic individual is involved in a criminal situation, regardless of whether they’re victims or the perpetrator. Suddenly, participation in an out-of-the-ordinary situation becomes mandatory and can have serious and far-reaching effects should they fail to cooperate fully with the authorities. But it’s simply impossible to handle – it’s not even a conscious choice on the part of the patient. Thus, police officers need to be trained in what to expect when interacting with ASD individuals. Learning to recognize the signs (or simply allowing the individual in some cases to present a card certifying their diagnosis) and reacting appropriately short-circuits the whole process by which frustrations build up with potential disaster just around the corner. ASD patients are not impossible to work with, nor are they more difficult. They simply require a different approach, and making sure that that approach is something officers know how to use will help avoid tons of headache and potential tragedy.


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