Over the course of two years, VirTra has been collaborating with Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) to create and launch a progressive and interactive training curriculum with corresponding video scenarios to teach law enforcement officers how to recognize and interact with autistic individuals. The curriculum aims to help officers recognize signs of autism and develop strategies/skills to improve interaction and minimize risk for both officer and civilian.
To avoid unnecessary trauma of those with ASD and scrutiny of law enforcement agencies, SARRC and VirTra firmly believe extensive education and skills-based training is the right path toward keeping everyone safe.
According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and estimates suggest that 50,000 teens with ASD transition into adulthood each year, increasing the likelihood of interaction between law enforcement and individuals with ASD. And yet, only 45% of officers surveyed say they have received training on interacting with people with ASD. Often, this depends on the region and could be incident-based – meaning some departments do not train on the subject until an unfortunate incident happens.
VirTra and SARRC are working to increase the number of officers trained on the topic of autism by providing departments with detailed curriculum and state-of-the-art virtual scenarios needed to effectively prepare officers for proper interaction.
Law enforcement officers can learn and practice these lessons through VirTra’s new Autism Awareness curriculum. Through this coursework, officers can prevent poorly-handled incidents with ASD individuals while creating a better relationship with every member of their community.
With a growing number of diagnoses, as well as more teens transitioning to adulthood each year, officers should know that ASD can cause significant social, emotional, communicative and behavioral challenges, which can lead to a different response to police presence than what is expected.
Be aware that people with ASD may react differently to outside stimuli such as lights, sounds and physical contact. Their reactions can range from agitation to becoming transfixed or silent. Minimize stress and confusion—if it is safe to do so—by turning off your squad car lights and siren, lowering the volume on your radio and taking a step back before asking questions.
Ask about the ASD subject’s triggers—specific sounds or movements that could set the person off—in order to avoid sparking a negative reaction. Follow up by asking what the best form of communication for that person is. An estimated one-third of people with autism are nonverbal. Asking questions and giving directions may have a greater effect through the use of pictures, sign language or simple vocabulary.
Form a Relationship
Before asking questions about the incident, spend a few minutes forming a relationship with the individual. Ask them questions about their interests or favorite items. Throughout the interaction, remind the individual that they are safe, but refrain from using phrases like “you’re not in trouble.” The subject might not hear the word “not” and focus on the word “trouble.”
Be aware that some autistic traits can be misconstrued, such as lack of eye contact or too much eye contact, no expression, unusual speaking patterns or repetitive body movements. In order to achieve effective communication, be factual, allow ample time for the person to process and respond, offer reassurance, talk in a calm voice and avoid making sudden movements and sounds.
Parents, caregivers or teachers should expose children with ASD to police officers early on. Let them become familiar and comfortable with how they look – the type of uniforms, and that they always have a badge. Explain that officers are safe, and they often arrive at times when someone needs help. This prevents children from growing up with the thought that a police officer means someone is going to jail or be arrested.
If children hear this information from a trusted adult combined with having positive interactions with police officers, they may be less likely to become fearful if they must speak to an officer at some point in their lives.