On Monday, a bodycam video was released by Buckeye Police Department that showed an encounter between one of its officers and a 14-year-old boy with autism. The boy, who can be seen holding a string, was reportedly in the park while his aide took a younger child across the street. When questioned by the officer,  “What are you doing?” the boy replied, “Good.” The officer then asked why the boy was bouncing. To the best of his ability and with matter-of-fact innocence in his voice, the boy simply responded, “I’m stimming.”

Once the officer pressed the boy to provide identification, which clearly caused him confusion and panic, he turned away. He was then handcuffed and began to anxiously repeat, “I’m okay.” He can then be heard from the ground shrieking, screaming and stating he needs help. The boy was left with multiple abrasions on his face, arms, and back.

While we commend the majority of officers who take a more compassionate, common sense approach to interacting with minor children with or without disabilities, we believe this officer used aggressive and unnecessary force. Based on the interaction shown, this officer clearly lacked knowledge of autism and quickly assumed the youth’s autism-related behaviors were criminal in nature, a growing and common assumption often made at the expense of today’s teens and adults with disabilities.

Just last year, a young man with autism who had wandered from a group home was mistaken for holding a gun when he was simply stimming on a harmless toy truck. An officer attempted to shoot the young man, but his aide was shot and wounded instead.

These types of interactions quickly escalate due to a lack of proper education and can cause serious, long-term devastation and trauma in individuals with autism who, due to their disability, may not be able to understand safety or consequences.

The National Autism Association believes there is a strong need for widespread training for all agencies, large and small. We praise the many agencies and officers who have become educated about autism and continue to work to protect all individuals with disabilities.

About Autism’s Unique Safety Risks

According to 2012 data published in Pediatrics, 49% of children with an ASD attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings. It’s also estimated that individuals with ASD will have seven times more contacts with law enforcement during their lifetimes than the general population (Curry, Posluszny, & Kraska, 1993). ASD behaviors like eye-contact avoidance, not responding to commands, or reacting differently to sounds, lights and commotion, may be mistaken for defiance, non-compliance or drug/alcohol use and lead to unsafe interactions. Also be aware that older people with autism may have the mental capacity of someone much younger.

How to Recognize the Signs of Autism

A person with autism may:

  • Not speak
  • Appear deaf
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Not respond to their name or verbal commands
  • Rock, pace, spin, bounce or hand-flap (stimming), or repeat phrases (echolalia)
  • Hold hands over ears due to sound sensitivity
  • Avoid or resist physical contact
  • Have unusual fears or obsessions with things like flashing lights, sirens, K-9s
  • Not answer questions
  • Need time to process questions or demands
  • Try to run away or hide
  • Appear to be under the influence
  • Not be properly dressed for the elements
  • Have the mental capacity of someone much younger

Things Departments Can Do

To help enhance safety among children and adults with autism, agencies should consider hosting meet and greets or other safety events at their station, a local school, library, park, etc. It would be helpful to collaborate with a local special education director or superintendent to schedule school visits. This will allow individuals with autism to become familiar with officers, uniforms, vehicles, and K-9s. Agencies can also start a voluntary registry for members with autism in their community.

We also hope agencies will take a moment to share this video in partnership with our friends at Autism Society of Central Texas. The link also includes our downloadable toolkit for First Responders. The video and toolkit are completely free of charge.

Taking Steps Towards Protection & Progress

Over the last ten years, NAA has worked to create resources to help caregivers, first responders and teachers protect individuals with autism. These resources include:

Because each person with autism is different and has unique behaviors, we also strongly encourage caregivers and care providers to introduce their child, adult, or client with autism to members of law enforcement regardless of general training. Our Meet the Police toolkit for caregivers and staff members can be downloaded at no charge, as well as this free emergency profile sheet.

Families should also consider wearable identification for their loved ones.

In addition to training and resources, we need understanding, and compassion. There are many wonderful law enforcement officers and first responders across the U.S. who demonstrate this each day. It is our hope that we recognize these professionals, follow their lead and work together to create a safe world for all individuals with disabilities and their caregivers.