The Chief's Blog
As we approach Election Day, I have to now put it in the
hands of the voters and God. I was
reminded today that if it is meant to be, God will allow it to happen. So, today’s blog is not about elections,
campaigns or politics.
Today I have turned over my blog to Ginger, as we honor and
recognize this month as Autism Awareness Month.
In New Orleans, she was the Executive Director of a program for the deaf
and children with communicative disorders.
Her connection to children with Autism, and Autism Spectrum Disorder
(ASD) runs deep. Our daughter, Emily
teaches a self-contained special education class with several autistic
Today, 1 out of 68 children will be born with ASD. These numbers are astounding. In a decade
this number has gone from 1 in 250, to just five years ago 1 in 150.
While we can address the educational options, behavioral
strategies, and teaching methods for children with ASD, we should also be
acutely aware that if these numbers are correct, there is an ever-growing
number of young adults and adults entering all aspects of our society with ASD –
the workforce, the communities, businesses, etc.
Since Ed’s blog has always integrated law enforcement into
its discussion, I thought it appropriate to do the same. I will refer to an Autism Tsunami facing today’s police forces, and just as there is a
need for police to be aware of and know about specific ADA laws (Americans With
Disabilities Act) and the rights of this specific “class” of citizenry, they
need special training when it comes to ASD.
There is a massive increase of young adults with autism; a
statistical wave created by what appears to be a perfect storm scenario of
concurrent contributing factors, including increased diagnoses, increased
incidence of autism, over-taxed and drying up community resources and a
maturing front-line demographic of individuals with autism The average age of
these autism-boomers at somewhere between 17 and 19 years of age.
Consider this: the Center for Disease Control estimates 1 in
68 births currently are on the autism spectrum and possibly still rising. 3 out
of 4 are male. Half are nonverbal or profoundly verbally limited. They are
seven times more likely to encounter the police and at least three times more
likely to be victims of violent and/or sexual crimes. 4 out of 5 police calls
will involve unusual or dangerous, not criminal, behaviors that will often be
difficult to manage or interpret. Two out of 5 will be prone to seizures, and a
good deal of them will be hypotonic (low-muscle-tone), making them prone to
positional asphyxia and musculoskeletal injuries. To top it all off, many of
them will appear to be oblivious to pain, while others will shrink, as if in
pain (perhaps real pain), to your slightest touch.
Police officers have been trained to use a certain police
presence and dialog as intervention options. Body posture, tone of voice, eye
contact, and interrogative language serves them well with most contacts. All of
these are a form of nonverbal communication. It’s what they rely on initially
to get their message across and control a contact. When dealing with subjects
with ASD, traditional officer presence may not work. In fact, it may even backfire.
A recent report was issued written by Joel Lashley, who is
the father of a son with autism and has more than 20 years experience managing
challenging behaviors in the clinical setting.
The report was a collaboration with Lashley (Children’s Hospital of
Wisconsin), Emily Levine (Executive Director of the Autism Society of
Southeastern Wisconsin), Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr. (Milwaukee County
Sheriff’s Office), Mike Thiel, CPP (Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Director
of Security), Edward A. Flynn (Chief of Police Milwaukee Police Department),
Dr. George Thompson (President of the Verbal Judo Institute), and scores of
Citing information in this report, “Children, youth, and
adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are as varied in their interests,
personalities, character, temperaments, and communication styles as anyone
else. It is therefore generally not a good idea to stereotype people with ASD.
In reality, no two persons behave exactly alike, but what we know about people
with ASD is that they tend to display unusual repetitive behaviors and have
difficulty with socialization and communication.”
People with autism and other cognitive or developmental
disabilities are less likely to commit a crime than others, but they are more
likely than ever before to:
• Live independently without support
• Be out in public alone, without family or care providers
• Work, attend school, use public transportation, and even
• Have their access to public places and other freedoms
• Have a medical emergency
• Be harassed and otherwise bullied
• Be a victim of sexual assault and other serious crimes
• Attract the attention of the police
According to the report, people with ASD often won’t
understand what others want or need from them — worse, they may not understand
that their words or actions can negatively impact others (or themselves).
Difficulty with natural social concepts and values is usually what gets them
into trouble with others, including the police, the report states.
I would like to conclude by pointing out that more and more
police forces are seeking training, and there are several very reliable
trainers and resources for them. Here
are a few suggestions that are included in some of the training that is
Once you've encountered a
subject who you think might have a cognitive impairment, here are a few principles
to help you out.
- First be safe and make sure they are unarmed.
- Persons with
ASD are as diverse as neurotypical people are. Start out
simple. Then find out how well they can communicate and adapt to that
- Manage your
sure you have back-up because you may need them just like on any other
call. Have your back-up stay back a few extra feet and stay quiet. Their
presence is added stimulation you don’t need right then! They should be
alert, out of direct sight, and out of mind.
- Don't interfere
with "self-stimming." Everyone self-stimulates — we drum our
fingers, tap our feet, and other quirky things when under stress or just
bored. Since their sense of nonverbal communication is not like ours,
persons with autism will exhibit what looks like bizarre self-stimulating
behaviors, like hand flapping, twirling their body, rocking, jumping in
place, handling an object and other things. Stimming can also be
auditory in the form of humming or other sounds by mouth, or repeating a
single work in rapid succession, "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes."
Stimming is a natural behavior we all do to calm ourselves down or focus
our concentration. Let it go and keep talking. It's helping you out more
than you know.
- Move them away
from the scene, or move the scene away from them. The point
is to reduce outside stimulation. Give them less of everything — less
sound, less light, fewer words, fewer voices, fewer people, fewer
distractions. Radios, sirens, pagers, beeping medical equipment, flashing
lights and all the trappings of public safety and emergency medicine are
exactly what will send your subject with autism into crisis.
- Allow for
you've moved them, allow them to acclimate. Everyone
"acclimates" to new surroundings. We simply look around the
room. People with autism will often walk around the room touching things.
Just watch and make sure they are safe.
- Don’t expect
eye contact or other appropriate body language. Their
lack of, or some might argue "unique" sense of, instinctive
nonverbal communication will be unnerving. They usually won't look at you
or wear an appropriate expression. They may spontaneously smile, frown,
scowl, or wear a blank expression. Don’t look for too much meaning in what
you see on the face.
- Don't equate
the inability to speak with deafness or illiteracy. Even if
your subject is nonverbal, they are likely to hear and understand some or
all of their own primary language (English/ Spanish/ etc.). In the case of
nonverbal subjects with autism, your spoken commands may be your only means
of communication. Most of them can probably read. Try short written notes
if your spoken words aren't "getting through."
- Don't read
meaning into words alone. Gauge your success by their
physical responses to your commands, not their words. If you ask them to
sit, they might say the word "sit" before or after they
physically comply. They might say, "Starbucks" because their
mother always tells them to sit down during their daily trip to Starbucks.
They may talk about something seemingly way off topic, like a TV show or
their favorite restaurant.
They may repeat what you say back to them. Immediate repetition of what
another person has said or is saying — a
behavior called "echolalia" — is a common autistic trait.
Repeating is thought to be their way of attempting communication with
others from behind the curtain of the profound loneliness many of them
They also might answer yes then no to the same question. Higher
functioning individuals might quote the law to you when you are
interfering, in their mind, with their right to move freely. Be prepared
to read between, over, and under, the lines.
- Use a normal
volume of voice until you gauge their reaction. If your
voice appears to startle or frighten them then decrease your volume. If
your first attempts to communicate have failed, you can try increasing
your volume slightly. Sensory input is often impaired. A low volume may be
expectable, while a "normal" volume might hurt their ears. Or
they might be hearing impaired, like my son, Colin. You’ll have to be
adaptable until you get things rolling.
- Keep your tone
of voice soft and non-threatening. They will likely
not be able to interpret emotion from your voice, but in case
they can, you want to sound non-threatening. Slow your pace and speak
- Use an economy
of words. Keep
your commands brief, clear, and literal (no figures of speech). Speech is
a form of stimulus. Persons with autism and/or persons in crisis abhor
strange voices and sound. Only one responder should do the talking and
don’t allow unnecessary talking around the subject.
- Give them extra
persons with autism will usually need more time to process your words and
react to them. Silently give them up to 11 seconds to act or respond to
your commands or questions. You can go onto the next thing once they’ve
their fear. They don’t know what you want from them. All they
know is that you are in their face. Tell them, "I am here to help
you," "I will take care of you," or "I will take you
home," depending on the situation. Anticipate the problem and
alleviate their anxiety.
- Say "good
job" to kids and adults alike. It may sound odd to say “good
job” to an adult, but it represents praise they are likely to be familiar
with from childhood and perhaps even in their current living situation. By
praising them with the phrase “good job” you're building rapport and
validating for them that they are doing what you want.
non-threatening body language. If they are able to interpret
body language, and most will not be able too, they will not respond to
your command presence. Most will not understand it and some will only feel
threatened by it. Remember, you were trained to use a command presence as
a means to gain compliance. Your command presence, or alpha posture, is not
appropriate to use for persons with autism or anyone in crisis. It will
most likely only backfire on you.
Instead of a command presence, keep your hands at belt level, gesture
slowly, and move slowly. Be relaxed but alert.
- Model the
behaviors you want to see. Persons with developmental
disabilities may not understand the subtleties of most nonverbal
communication, but they usually will respond to your mood and the
gross-motor movements of your body — either negatively or positively.
So, if you want them to be still, then be still. If you want them to be
calm, then be calm. Want them to stay back then maintain an appropriate
space from them and from your partners. If you want them to sit then try
modeling sitting. Just as they might echo your words, they might echo your
- Personal space
is relative. Stay
out of tip-off or kicking range as trained. Proxemics is a form of
nonverbal communication like any other body language. Since persons with
autism spectrum disorders often do not have an instinctive sense of
personal space, they might invade yours. Be ready for it. Guard
your weapons. They can be attracted to shiny or otherwise
interesting objects. If you have foreknowledge of what you’re getting
into, then leave your badge, name tags, pens, and other non-essential
items in your squad. Keep your hands empty — there will be time for notes
- Look for a
cause. Kids with autism who did things like put their head
through a bus window because they couldn’t tell anyone they had a bad ear
infection; some severely slapped their own bare skin,
probably just because they were cold; kids who were combative just because they
- Many teachers
have talked about the "terrible hour" meaning that time in the
afternoon when some kids with autism will act-up. Often when a brief nap
was introduced, the behaviors ceased. First see to basic needs: pain,
cold, heat, thirst, hunger, and fatigue, and then see what happens.
- Striking out is
expressions and other body language have limited or no meaning to persons
with ASD. If we get too close, or come up behind a person, we can
expect to get a dirty look over the shoulder. The dirty look means “stay
back” and is often an unconscious and instinctive, rather than learned,
behavior. For persons with autism, that instinct will often translate into
a backhand or choking movement. They can’t say it with their mouth, or
show it on their face, so their instinct is to physically strike out with
- Tell them the
"rules." People with autism are all about routine and
the "rules." Law-abiding neurotypicals, like you and me, fear
and/ or respect the law. Persons with ASD rely on and respect the rules.
So for example, say, "Sir, the rules say I have to put these
handcuffs on you."
- Quiet hands and
hands" is a common command used to manage children with ASD in the
home and school setting. It’s one many children and adults will be
familiar with. If one is striking out or kicking, try the "quiet
hands" or "quiet feet" command in a stern moderate tone.
- Biting is a
common defensive behavior — don't get bitten! Biting
is a common defensive behavior — don't get bitten! Biting is probably the
most basic mammalian defensive reaction. When attempting to physically
control persons on the autism spectrum, stay clear of the mouth. The human
bite is very dangerous and I’ve seen persons with autism severely bite
their own loved ones. The best defense against a bite is to prevent it by
stabilizing the subject’s head before the subject’s teeth can make contact
with your body. If you do get bitten, mandibular or hypoglossal pressure
points are worth a try, but I’ve seen them fail on a subject with autism.
In the event that they are severely biting someone, there are other
passive techniques for breaking off a bite that are beyond the scope of
this article. But considering that biting is a common behavior for
autistic persons in crisis, it may be time for public safety people to
learn additional passive bite releases.
- They have an
alternative sense of fear. People with autism may exhibit an
irrational fear of, or be attracted to, glass. They are often attracted to
bodies of water and have no fear of drowning (I taught my son to swim at a
young age, and I suggest it to everyone. Work with his or her doctors and
learn how to proceed).
Certain sounds and sights may frighten them, perhaps even some odors or
textures, but at the same time they might have no fear of opening a door
in a moving car or darting into heavy traffic. Wandering off is a big
problem with ASD kids and some adults. A lack of fear of strangers, places
them in all sorts of dangerous situations.
- They have an
altered sense of pain. Many persons on the autism spectrum can be
repulsed by certain textures and calmed by others. Irritation from certain
fabrics has been described, by some persons with autism, as painful. They
might have a broken arm or other severe wound and not exhibit a pain
response, such as screaming, crying, or guarding. Some may be comforted by
a bear hug, but the same person might shriek at a soft touch on the
shoulder, as if in pain.
- Support and
constantly monitor breathing. Because they are often hypotonic,
they often have difficulty breathing under stress. Also, their chest
muscles may be weak and have difficulty supporting even their own weight,
in some positions. Position your handcuffed subject on their side in the
lateral recumbent (low-level fetal) position, meaning slightly bent at the
waist and knees. If it’s safe, sit them up.
Consider transporting them in the lateral recumbent position in an
ambulance. Every cop knows about positional asphyxia. Consider all your
subjects with developmental disabilities to be at risk.
stays up. Whether
for organic or behavioral reasons persons with autism need lots of extra
time to cool down. It’s just like any other person in crisis. If you’re
sick of waiting, then get ready to fight. Then get ready to explain
The good news is, cops are very good at sizing up these
situations. Give them the tools and they’ll know what to do with them! If the
pros can provide police, corrections, and healthcare security officers with the
necessary tools to recognize and communicate with subjects likely to have ASD,
then the situation will have a fighting chance to resolve peacefully.