Autism Spectrum Disorder & Autism Training for Law Enforcement

What Law Enforcement Needs to Know – Autism Awareness Training for First Responders

The Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) has defined autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as “a pervasive developmental disorder” and is considered a ‘spectrum’ due to the way its presentation can vastly differ. Some people with ASD give little indication that they have the disorder at all. ASD is characterized by difficulty in communication and social situations as well as repetitive behavior and/or speech patterns.

As SARRC states, it is important to avoid stereotyping autistic behaviors as no two cases are alike. While some have minor or even unnoticeable signs, others may exhibit impairment in certain functions such as restricted cognition or speech.

Some signs that a person you are communicating with has ASD include:

  • Hand flapping
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Highly restricted interests
  • Echolalia (repeating what they hear)
  • Upset with minor changes in routine or environment
  • Resistance to direction or control

According to data from the CDC, 1 in 54 children has been diagnosed with ASD. Because of this, it is highly likely that law enforcement officers will encounter a person on the spectrum during their career. This makes it even more vital for law enforcement to learn the signs.

Other factors that are important to note include the following:

  • Autism is notably more common in males than females.
  • Many people with autism have an average to above average IQ.
  • Autism affects people of all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
  • There is no known cause for ASD.
  • Some behaviors associated with autism could be inadvertently interpreted by law enforcement as suspicious or indicative of drug use.

Signs of autism can be seen in infants, but in other cases it can occur as late as 2 or 3 years of age, according to SARRC.

Autism Training for First Responders

Why Officers Must Know the Signs & Why Autism Training for Law Enforcement is Essential

In July 2017, an incident in Arizona involving law enforcement’s response to an autistic boy made headlines all around the country. The 14-year-old male was in a park holding a piece of string in an activity known as “stimming” – something common among people on the autism spectrum. It is an abbreviation for self-stimulation that is often used as a calming mechanism.

Stimming, as covered by the Child Mind Institute, is described as a “self-soothing behavior.” In some cases it could interfere with everyday activities or thought of as strange or not socially acceptable. In the case of the Arizona officer, he observed the young teen holding a string and putting it near his face, causing him to think he might be using some type of inhalant drug.

Due to the stimming behavior that the officer deemed suspicious and indicative of illegal substance use, he approached the boy, who was reluctant to communicate with the officer. As he tried to leave the conversation, the officer restrained his arms and held him down on the ground, causing the boy to become distressed.

It is important to note that the officer was trained in drug use recognition and his agency has not received autism awareness training for first responders. Because of this mixture, it was clear why an accident happened that was quite traumatic for the teen – who needed therapy and was afraid of police after the incident. The officer was not doing this with malicious intent, but because of an unfortunate lack of training provided by the agency.

Unfortunately, this is not the only situation where police officers have mistakenly treated someone with ASD as if they were a suspicious subject without taking the time to notice if they may have special needs. When autism training for law enforcement agencies is addressed cohesively, that not only shows them how to interact safely with a person who has ASD, but also clues that can help them identify who is on the spectrum.

Certified Autism Training for Law Enforcement

How VirTra Can Help Your Department Provide Autism Awareness Training for First Responders

If you aren’t taught how to identify possible autistic behaviors, you may be putting a person with ASD at risk. VirTra aims to support the ASD community as well as law enforcement by providing certified V-VICTA® autism training for law enforcement curriculum designed to teach officers to recognize the signs and interact with subjects accordingly.

VirTra’s “Autism Awareness” V-VICTA curriculum provides law enforcement officers with 2 hours of NCP certified curriculum designed to be used on VirTra’s immersive use-of-force simulators. It was created in partnership with SARRC, who offered expertise on interacting with people on the autism spectrum. Several VirTra clients have participated in review and early beta testing of the autism awareness training for first responder’s curriculum materials and scenarios to ensure ease of use and learning.

Like all of VirTra’s V-VICTA content, our Autism Awareness Training for first responders offers ready-to-use materials such as lesson plans, testing materials, class rosters, class surveys and more. A majority of the course will be taught in a practical setting within the VirTra simulator. With a training video walkthrough by SARRC CEO Daniel Openden plus scenarios where officers can put their skills into practice, there are options to learn by doing rather than only sitting in a lecture. All of the actors shown within the video walkthrough and associated scenarios are real people with autism that give police the chance to see real life examples of autistic behaviors.

For more information on how to obtain Autism Training for Law Enforcement personnel to better inform your department about the signs and interactions of those on the spectrum, click the button below.