What Cops Need to Know About Autism

22Jan17

As I’ve written before, I have an autistic son. I’ve also been a cop for almost 23 years. So when I saw the video of North Miami PD shooting the caretaker of an autistic man last July, and heard the officer’s explanation that he was actually trying to shoot the autistic man, I was…perplexed.

Just from a tactical perspective, I didn’t get the reasoning behind that shooting. From the camera’s angle I didn’t see anything that looked like a gun, I clearly saw the caretaker with his hands up explaining the situation, and I didn’t get why the caretaker was cuffed after being shot if the officer supposedly fired to protect him.

But most importantly, I saw the autistic man doing something that could have been a sign to the responding officers.

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On many occasions I’ve seen my autistic son lift objects to his eyes like that, or rub his fingers together at the corners of his eyes. Had I been on that scene, I would have immediately told everyone to back off, and explained why. The officers on that scene, through no fault of their own, seem not to have recognized that sign.

I’ve never been scared of a cop (at least in America; overseas was a different story). Despite the alleged oppression Hispanics have suffered, despite having family members complain to me about their awful treatment when they were arrested for things they were actually guilty of, despite the usual negative portrayal of cops on TV and in the media, I was never, ever, scared of an American cop. But now that I have an autistic son, I have to worry. Because I don’t know if my son, when he reaches adulthood, might somehow wind up in a situation where an untrained police officer might mistake him for a threat.

When I became a cop in 1994, I don’t remember any training about autism. We get some now, but what I’ve received is more about the basics of autism than how it specifically applies to my job. The number of kids diagnosed with autism has skyrocketed since I started this career, so new cops can expect to encounter a lot more autistic people than I ever did.

I speak autism and I speak cop, so after the North Miami shooting I started trying to figure out ways to spread knowledge about autism to street cops. I’ve come up with some examples, based on firsthand knowledge, of situations where a cop might mistake an autistic person for a threat.

First, I should say THIS IS ORIENTED TOWARD PATROL OFFICERS. Pretty much every other type of cop (detectives, accident investigators, etc.) arrives after the situation is settled and main players identified, but patrol shows up to mass confusion and a thousand unknowns. Patrolmen need this more than any other type of cop.

EXAMPLE 1: You’re on patrol and get a “see complainant” call at a house, with no additional information. You arrive at the house, knock on the door, and get invited inside. Inside the front room are a middle-aged couple and a teenage boy. Everything is calm. As you begin talking to the middle-aged couple, the teenage boy suddenly grabs your arm and yanks you toward the front door.

What would you do?

Something similar happened to me while I was conducting an investigation. I knew when I entered this house that a teenage boy with autism lived there. When he grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the door, I knew exactly what he was doing: he wanted to go for a ride. He wanted me to put him in my car and drive somewhere. I knew this because my autistic boy loves to go for rides, and has done the exact same thing with me many times.

As cops, we should always be vigilant. We should always be prepared to encounter a surprise threat. If I hadn’t known an autistic person was in that house, and didn’t have an autistic son myself, I would have reacted defensively when that teenage boy grabbed me. I would have yanked my arm away. I would probably have shoved him away to create distance. I would likely have drawn a Taser or baton. And none of that would have been necessary, because the boy wasn’t any kind of a threat.

If I had reacted like a cop instead of the father of an autistic son, I would likely have made the situation worse. Foreknowledge of autism kept me from overreacting and maybe harming an innocent person.

Example 2: You receive a “prowler” call in a neighborhood late at night, with a detailed suspect description. You drive into the neighborhood, turn a corner and see your suspect walking down the street. You drive up to him, get out of your car and yell at him to stop. He immediately sticks his fingers in his ears.

Most cops I know would get mad. We’ve known since childhood that sticking your fingers in your ears means “Lalalalala I’m not listening to you!”, and that would piss most of us off.

But you know what else it could be? It could be an autistic person who wandered from his house (like the man in North Miami) and has sensitivity to loud noises. I’ve been around autistic kids who have to always wear hearing protection because they’re so sensitive. I’ve seen my son melt down at an airshow, even with earmuffs, because he couldn’t stand the sound of the Blue Angels flying overhead. I once took him with me when I taught a class on autism, and at the end when the audience applauded he immediately stuck his fingers in his ears.

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[Photo from FriendshipCircle.Org]

Autism often involves hypersensitivity to sensory stimulation. If you encounter someone who acts like they’re ignoring your shouted commands, it may mean they actually can’t handle the shouting.

Read the rest here on Breach Bang Clear.

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Chris Hernandez is a 22 year police officer, former Marine and recently retired National Guard soldier with over 25 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com and Iron Mike magazine and has published three military fiction novels, Proof of Our ResolveLine in the Valley and Safe From the War through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at chris_hernandez_author@yahoo.com or on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProofofOurResolve).

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6 Responses to “What Cops Need to Know About Autism”

  1. 1 Lynn

    Great piece Chris!

  2. 2 Don Davis

    Chris: Thank you for this column post. A lot of people, not just LEO could do with reading it.

  3. 3 Earl Harding

    As the father of an autistic son myself, thank you for trying to get this word out.

    I never used to be afraid of the police either. Sadly, these days I cannot say that is still true, for very much the reasons that you mention.

  4. 4 Bonnie Rowe

    Thank you from someone who has traveled this road, from the bottle m of my heart.

  5. 5 David

    Chris,

    I am also the father of an autistic son who is currently four years old. He too possesses sensory sensitivities and will either cover his ears or randomly scream/ screech or grab at you out at certain noises and events. I’ve been so preoccupied with providing all necessary support so he can be successful in school that potential police intervention at some point in his life hadn’t ever become a thought.

    With the prevalence of autism steadily increasing, it is falsely assumed that people, educators, first responders and others have been formally introduced and educated about the issues surrounding persons with autism.

    Thank you for your insight on the issue. I would like to bring up the topic with my own local PD to see what kind of training, if any, they have dealing with autistic adults and children.


  1. 1 Weekend Knowledge Dump- January 27, 2017 | Active Response Training

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