Posted on Apr. 8, 2021 by Niki Nelson

According to the CDC, 1 in 53 people in the United States are diagnosed with autism. As such, law enforcement officers, who interact with countless individuals, are certain to come into contact with a person on the autism spectrum at some point during their career. Unfortunately, there are instances that prove not every agency is equipped and educated in terms of communicating efficiently with people on the spectrum.

Officers are not doctors, and therefore, they should never be expected to diagnose any subject. However, there are signs to be aware of that may signal that the officer is interacting with an autistic person. Failure to recognize these signs has led to officers mistaking autistic behaviors for criminal ones, including resistance or even drug use. Unfortunate cases have happened where autistic individuals have been unnecessarily traumatized and left with minor injuries because an officer was unable to tell the difference between their autism and misleading behaviors.

Due to an apparent lack of knowledge about the condition, partnered with the fact that autism is prevalent in society, VirTra and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) worked together to create a certified virtual Autism Awareness course for law enforcement. Within a simulator displaying cutting-edge technology and graphics, officers can verbally interact with an on-screen subject who displays signs of autism in these autism awareness scenarios. With numerous branching options to resolution and a thorough virtual walkthrough of what autism is, officers will enhance their skills and help keep the autism community safer.

Now, a year since the course has made its debut in VirTra’s V-VICTA™ lineup, the course has been installed on simulators around the country and has attracted praise from experts. Just recently, Holly Blanc Moses, host of The Autism ADHD Podcast, graciously invited Lon Bartel and Daniel Openden to guest on a recent episode. Bartel, VirTra’s Director of Training & Curriculum, along with Openden, CEO of SARRC, were the creators and masterminds behind the Autism Awareness curriculum project and are always eager to further educate law enforcement as well as the public.

Just a few of the many tips shared by all three experts during the discussion include:

• If possible, find out if there are specific communication needs and challenges before the encounter. This could be communicated to the officer by a parent, sibling, friend, etc.
• Turn off the lights on the patrol car and turning down the volume on your radio, as they might cause a sensory overload.
• Try to find an area to communicate where it is quiet and there are less people.
• Build rapport with community members with autism, including their parents and guardians.

To learn more about Autism Awareness and how to obtain this course and various other certified curriculum, click here.

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