Training law enforcement to deal with autistic people

As part of a training exercise on autism, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Ralphael Banks donned 3D glasses and wrote with his right hand instead of his dominant left while taking a quiz. The object was to acquaint deputies with the sensory confusion and frustration many autistic people face.
As part of a training exercise on autism, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Ralphael Banks donned 3D glasses and wrote with his right hand instead of his dominant left while taking a quiz. The object was to acquaint deputies with the sensory confusion and frustration many autistic people face. Chris Richard/California Health Report

The quiz was really easy.

Who was the first president of the United States? What’s 39 plus 16? What does UFO stand for?

But test-taking conditions were less than ideal.

A group of sheriff’s deputies would have to read the 10 questions through 3D glasses as a loudspeaker blared disjointed music, speech and static. Right-handed people would be required to write their answers legibly with their left, and vice versa.

At the end of the 60 seconds allotted for the quiz, most people hadn’t finished. Some said they felt frustrated because they knew the answers and couldn’t write them down.

That was just a hint of what it’s like to be autistic, said Kate Movius of Autism Interaction Solutions, who included the quiz in a recent training session at a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s substation.

"Imagine you felt like that all the time. Imagine if somebody asked you, 'Where do you live?' and you know exactly where you live, and you can’t get the words out," she told the deputies.

"It’s very easy with those with autism to misunderstand them and think they’re either being stubborn, belligerent, rude or noncompliant," said Movius. "These are the four adjectives that often get applied."

Amid increased public scrutiny of law enforcement tactics, some Southern California agencies - including the LAPD, the Orange Police Department, the Los Angeles School Police Department and others - have started specialized training to help officers read the signs of autism and respond appropriately.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s City of Industry substation began offering such training in January at the request of City Councilwoman Cory Moss, whose eight-year-old son has autism.

"The deputies have been telling us they’re really learning," Moss said. "A lot of times, they’ll say, ‘I didn’t know what I didn’t know."

Knowing what to look for can be especially challenging because autism is a spectrum disorder. Autistic people share some degree of difficulty in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication. But while some people with autism have intellectual disability, others excel in visual skills, music, math and art, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

Movius said law enforcement authorities can expect the number of interactions with the autistic to increase. Citing statistics from Autism Speaks, she said the autism rate is increasing, and noted that people with developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to have dealings with law enforcement than those without disabilities.

Some of those interactions have generated controversy. In July, for instance, a Burbank police officer used pepper spray and a Taser to subdue a 16-year-old autistic boy who allegedly was assaulting him after the officer stopped his mother’s car because the teen was not wearing a seatbelt, according to a police spokesperson.

In her training presentation, Movius described a series of scenarios where people might look like they were up to no good when in fact they were simply autistic.

For example, police might get a call about somebody walking down the street looking into car windows. While it might be a car burglar looking for things to steal, it might be an autistic person fascinated by something he’d glimpsed through a window, Movius said.

Autistic people often are literal minded, so they might answer affirmatively to a deputy’s question, "Are you on drugs?" because they’d taken aspirin recently, she said.

And sometimes, what looks like recalcitrance is simply an inability to speak. Movius suggested alternatives like handing a seemingly uncommunicative person a smart phone or tablet to type out answers.

An especially disconcerting event can be a "meltdown," a little-understood event in which an autistic person seems to fly into a tantrum for no reason, sometimes striking or biting himself. Movius said about two years ago in Glendale, police got a call about a kidnapping attempt – people had seen two men struggling to wrap a third man in a blanket. It turned out the two men were the third man’s caregivers, she said, noting that it’s sometimes necessary to gently try to restrain someone having a meltdown.

In such cases, the best thing a law enforcement officer can do is "empower the parent or the caregiver," said Bobbie Hendrickson, who attended the training session with her two autistic children.

"The parent or the caregiver knows what the person needs," she said. "For me, it would be just keeping people away from us and telling them, 'Everybody go about your business and let them through. It’s OK.'"

Bobbie Hendrickson brought her 14-year-old daughter Sydney to a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department seminar on interactions with the autistic. Sydney, who is autistic, sometimes relies on her computer tablet to communicate with her family.
Bobbie Hendrickson brought her 14-year-old daughter Sydney to a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department seminar on interactions with the autistic. Sydney, who is autistic, sometimes relies on her computer tablet to communicate with her family. Chris Richard/California Health Report

Deputy Christopher Abeyta said one of the principles he learned was the importance of giving himself time to interpret what he observes. It might take time to consider the possibility that somebody could be autistic.

"I think I would just slow things down," he said.

That’s the kind of lesson Sheriff’s Lt. John Gannon, who oversees the training program, wants to convey.

"People who come through this have that extra layer of knowledge in their minds," he said.  In a challenging situation, "Now maybe they’ll think, 'It could be ...' and they try something different."

Deputies have already used that new perspective to ease communication with several autistic people, Gannon said.

Interactions between people with autism and the police can result in miscommunication that leads to quick escalation.

Last September, police in Kodiak, Alaska responding to a report of a man breaking into a car restrained a 28-year-old autistic man who had been checking his family’s mailbox nearby. The man didn’t turn face down on the ground to be handcuffed as ordered. Officers pepper-sprayed him as he screamed, "I’m sorry! I want to go home!" A police investigation found that the use of force was appropriate, but the man’s family has sued.

In July, police in North Miami, Florida shot and wounded the caregiver of a severely autistic man who had wandered away from a group home and was playing with a silver toy truck. Someone reported the truck as a gun.

The shooting of caretaker Charles Kinsey provoked widespread outrage after the online release of a bystander’s video emerged showing him with his arms raised as officers confronted the unidentified autistic man, who was shouting loudly. The president of North Miami’s police union was quoted as saying the officer thought Kinsey was in danger and was aiming for the autistic man and hit the caretaker by mistake.

During the July stop in the Burbank incident, the teen began to argue with his mother and the officer, at one point saying he wanted to fight the officer "hand-to-hand," said Burbank Police Sgt. Claudio Losacco. He said the officer, a four-year veteran, tried to reduce tensions by issuing a warning instead of a traffic citation, but the youth remained agitated and aggressive.

Losacco said the boy kicked his car door open into the officer’s knees, peeled off his sweatshirt and approached the officer in a fighting stance, telling the officer to pepper spray him. The officer did, but without apparent effect, Losacco said. He said the teen punched the officer several times, knocking off his glasses, whereupon the officer shocked him with his Taser and handcuffed him. The boy has been arrested on suspicion of issuing a challenge to fight in a public place, resisting an officer by force and battery on a peace officer, Losacco said.

"That is the narrative that the police department is presenting, but the family disputes those facts and is prepared to challenge them," said Areva Martin, an attorney representing the boy’s family. She said she’s requested a copy of the officer’s body-camera video of the confrontation, and the family is weighing a lawsuit.

"What we see in so many of these cases is a resistance to patience, a resistance to how individuals with mental health issues respond," Martin said.

"Police are trained to give you an order, and their expectation is that you will follow that order immediately," she said. "And if you do not, they then ratchet it up. And they oftentimes go from zero to 100 very quickly."

"The reality is, said Martin, "if you give an order to a person with autism, they don’t have the cognitive ability to process that order and to respond to it in the way that police are trained someone should respond."

Losacco said that accusation doesn’t fit his department. He noted that Burbank officers undertook training on dealing with people with autism last year, and were featured on the trainer’s website.

Emily Iland, who led two days of training for Burbank in June 2015, said it was her understanding it included all of the police department’s sworn officers.

"But even when you’re trained and trained well," says Iland, "sometimes a situation takes a course of its own."

Listen to an interview with Kate Movius of Autism Interaction Solution on Take Two.

The California Health Report is a statewide nonprofit news service covering health and health policy.

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