Autism and Law Enforcement

autism law enforcement

All autism parents feel anxious about their children in the community, knowing they could be perpetrators, victims of crime, or wanderers.  Far too often, criminal actions on the part of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) individuals are provoked by school administrators and/or police officers not understanding the signs and manifestations of autism. A recent case in point is the ridiculous incarceration of a young man selling packs of sugar at

Common reasons for ASD people to run afoul of the law include: 

• Deliberate exploitation by others 
• Aggressive behavior brought on by disruption of routine, sensory overload, etc. or the police encounter itself. 
• Anti-social behavior due to their lack of knowledge of reading and following
social cues 
• Obsessions (such as a computer programming obsession leading to hacking charges) 
• Fleeing the scene of the police encounter 

While ASD people as a group commit no more crimes than any other group, they have much less comprehension of the consequences of their actions.  Once in police custody, individuals with autism can be treated more harshly due to their seeming lack of cooperation or remorse.  They may confess to crimes they did not commit in an effort to please the interrogator.  Thrown into the general prison population, they become a
ready target for abuse.  Once out of prison, the transition back into society is more difficult for them than the average felon. 

A reader shared with me her frustration in trying to find housing for her ASD son, who is soon to be released from jail on a felony charge largely attributable to his disability. A group housing affiliate stated that they would consider housing an ex-murderer but couldn’t consider her loved one due to his “legal type problem.” Hence, an ex-murderer would be afforded a second chance that her son would not. Her righteous reaction is that anyone with a mental health, developmental disability or autism spectrum diagnosis should have access to reasonable accommodations under fair housing laws, regardless of having a felony. No one trying to re-enter society after prison should be put at risk for homelessness or recidivism because of their disability. 

While crimes committed by ASD individuals can be unfairly attributed to their disability (as in the case of the Newtown massacre), individuals on the autism spectrum are statistically more likely to be a victim of crime than commit one. It’s estimated that ASD individuals are four to ten times more likely to be victims of crime than their neurotypical counterparts.  Police, social workers and other intervening entities need to handle ASD victims with particular care so as not to traumatize them further.  Autism Society has created a series of downloadable pamphlets addressing important issues confronting professionals, victims and their families that can be downloaded here.

And then there’s every autism parents’ nightmare — wandering.  We have discovered that even incidents of wandering that end happily can turn to disaster when overzealous child protective services break up families in the name of saving them. The case of Ayn Van Dyk, the Canadian child who was seized and held for over a year is but the tip of the iceberg of institutional injustice against autism families. The trauma inflicted is incalculable. 

Against this dire backdrop, it is indeed heartening to discover more momentum gathering behind educating and reforming the criminal justice system when it comes to autism. A lengthy and detailed article at a police website addressed autism and law enforcement in all its aspects can be found here.

Dennis Debbaudt of Autism Risk & Safety Management is a career police officer, a father of a son with autism, and a trailblazer in making the world a safer place for our children with autism. Through his many training and outreach programs, he is the perfect liaison between law enforcement and autism. His website contains a plethora of downloadable information (parents of teens may be particularly interested in his materials about autism and driving).  Also heartening, more and more police departments are creating voluntary autism registries to aid in the recovery and soothing of wandering children, or to defuse potentially charged interactions with
ASD individuals in their communities. 

There are things that we as parents and caregivers can do for our children. Coach your child on what to do if stopped by a police officer.  Play act possible scenarios.  See if your community has an autism registry that will give first responders a personal approach to helping your child if they wander or get stopped for jaywalking or some reason. And have your child wear a medical alert tag identifying their disorder. 
As we keep pressing for more reform in the world at large, we can make our corner of it safer for our children.

About the Author
Susan Moffitt