Autistic people and law enforcement
In this new age of technology where people can upload almost every second of their life on any platform on the internet, there have been times where those in law enforcement have been exposed to the public for lying about certain issues arising during a traffic stop or arrest. This has lead to law enforcement agents such as police to be outfitted with cameras that record every instance of their time on duty. With the introduction of this policy there has been an increase of situations where people who are hurt or harassed by police are able to successfully prove in court that a law enforcement agent is abusing their power given to them by the law, which has resulted in states having to pay millions to the victims and their families. Although these situations may happen mostly based on skin color or ethnicity, there are those who are overlooked in society who are experiencing harsh interactions with police officers who have no voice and are not protected fully under the law like everyone else. This group consist of people who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. With the rise in births over the last two decades, studies conducted by numerous organizations like the CDCP have concluded that more and more children are becoming diagnosed with ASD and other mental illness that can lead to many social and intellectual disadvantages. Currently, there are no state or federal laws that add extra protections for those who live with these diagnosis in the event they come into direct contact with law enforcement which result in them being treated like everyone else, even though they are not like everyone else in certain aspects.
Studies by the CDCP have concluded that in the past twenty years, more and more children who are born are being diagnosed with some form of Autism later on in life. The CDCP also states that currently every 1 in 59 births, per every 1000 births, will result in a positive diagnosis of Autism or some other form of mental illness in the United States (CDCP.) Since the definition of Autism has moved from a solid block definition to the current spectrum scale, statistics have shown that this trend of positive diagnosis will only increase within the coming years. These shocking rises in diagnosis also show a very disproportionate rate in who is more affected, with males being four times more likely to receive a diagnosis of ASD than females. As more research is conducted it is believed by many specialists that during certain years, there may be a small decline in children being diagnosed with ASD followed by sudden increases in births of children receiving the diagnosis. Within the CDCPs findings, it is concluded that the rate of births with a diagnosis of ASD will cross the 20% threshold within the next 15 years. There still is no full understanding of how someone can get Autism, but many specialists believe it starts during the time in the womb and children can be as young as two years old when they show signs which can be diagnosed by a psychologist as someone who has Autism. If a child with ASD is not given a proper diagnosis before a certain age limit, they may not ever be able to receive one as there are no tests that currently exist to diagnose adults with ASD. This is obviously a problem since most people with ASD who have interactions with law enforcement are older teens and adults who are mostly seen as greater threat risks to others and themselves.
The rate of children receiving a diagnosis of ASD is important because like all human beings, these children will grow up to become adults and have to find a way to adapt to society and follow its rules. Within the US, states are allowed to set up certain laws that may differ from the federal governments and most citizens without a diagnosis of ASD will have a hard time following and understanding these laws. For people living with a diagnosis of ASD this understanding of laws and how society works can be almost near to impossible depending on where they sit on the spectrum. Only one state currently has a law where mandatory training for police officers exists which is in Florida. The law came about in 2016 after a man living with ASD managed to escape his group home and began roaming the streets with his favorite toy car in hand. When others began to question why a grown man was walking around talking to himself, police were called to the scene. When his caretaker finally found him sitting in the street, police had arrived and suspected the man with ASD was holding a weapon which was only his toy car. The caretaker was laying on his back with his hands in the air telling the police that the man was on the spectrum, but unfortunately the caretaker was shot in the leg by an officer. After this news made national headlines the state quickly passed legislation that made it a state law for police to receive mandatory training on recognizing and dealing with people who live with ASD (Miami Herald). Although Florida stands alone with such mandatory trainings, other states do regularly work with Autism Advocacy groups in an attempt to help law enforcement recognize signs of ASD and how to de-escalate any tensions, but the training is not mandatory for anyone who does not wish to go (Arizona Republic.)
Even with events such as the one in Miami leading to changes in how law enforcement are trained, there are still stories today in which mistakes are made that result in negative publicity for law agencies and changes in how people with ASD view law enforcement. During patrol in the city of Buckeye in Arizona, a police officer trained in drug detection witnessed a 14 year old boy with Autism brandish something in his right hand which he then brought up to his face to smell. The officer believed the teen to be using an inhalant drug and approached him to ask him questions about his actions. The teen responded to his question with his action being "stimming" which is a term used for self stimulation to calm one's nerves and began to walk backwards from the approaching officer. The officer then asked for the boys id but then grabbed the boy by his arm in an attempt to stop him from walking away, which caused them to both fall to the ground and lead to the boy reacting by screaming out "I'm okay!" repeatedly. The officer attempted to pin the boy while he waited for a second squad car to assist him but then was approached by the boys aunt who was nearby in her home who was yelling that the boy has Autism. She then attempted to console the boy by letting him know he is okay and she is there. This prompted the boys family to ask for financial compensation to cover the teens therapy and wanted to settle out of court but the Buckeye Police Department found the officer to be acting within his rights but quickly made a mandatory training day for officers to identify people with ASD. The training was a one time occurence. It is very often that a police encounter involving a person with ASD that goes to trial works more in favor with the officer than the victim, but this is only because the jury may not know enough about ASD and always finds the officers to be acting within their rights granted by the law. Many families become outraged that law enforcement agencies usually do not have any programs in place that mandates training to recognize those living with ASD and have turned to Autism Advocacy groups to help work with these agencies by setting up websites that aim to offer traits that people on the spectrum usually express in order for police to approach the situations in a calmly manner. Although again it is usually not ever implemented, most states recommend law enforcement agents attend at least one seminar a year or do their due diligence on researching ASD from home.
Even with certain states recommending training and one state mandating it, that is about as far as it goes when it comes to any type of actions set up to protect people with ASD. In the eyes of the federal government, people with ASD are no more different from neurotypicals (People who do not have any form of mental illness or disability) and as such are treated in all cases identically in jails and courthouses. Certain judges who oversee cases involving people with ASD will usually always give an ultimatum of "Stop making these mistakes or risk going to jail" which is almost always something that is not understood by those on the spectrum. Those living with ASD don't normally pick up on social cues like looking into someone's eyes or realizing that what they are doing may not be the best thing to do socially. To them, the system may be thought of as something that has no special meaning which might cause them to become repeat offenders and end up back in court. If this happens enough times due to their lack of understanding how laws work, they can easily be sent to jail or prison, which is a place where they might not receive the necessary care they require. It is believed that many of the people currently in jail or prison are suffering from at least some form of intellectual disability who have not been diagnosed at a young age and since no adult Autism diagnosis criteria exits, they will never be given a proper diagnosis or recieve the help they need in order to become better and finish out their sentence. Inmates who do not receive the help they need may act out in an irrational and threatening manner while serving out their sentence which can lead to instances of being beaten or tased by corrections officers. With these events may come consequences of being considered still too dangerous to be granted freedom back into society and result in longer periods of detention or isolation in solitary confinement which can be devastating for someone who has ASD. Although in some instances those living with ASD may not suffer too much in jail or prison, they can severely regress in any field if they had received any form of therapy prior to their introduction to the system and if they happen to find their way out back into society, they are no longer able to use what they have learned and may no longer be able to thrive like they once had the ability to do.
In reaching the end of this research paper there are many points of data that exist to show the disturbing trend of the rising diagnosis of Autism in each new generation and how early intervention may help these people. If states cannot rally behind others like Florida in passing legislation set out to help law enforcement to detect and intervene in a positive way when it comes to people with ASD then I feel there will be more and more instances like the one in Miami or Buckeye which may result in deadly encounters. The line cannot end at the state though, the federal government must recognize the rapidly changing landscape that is Autism and create laws that protect all people living with an intellectual disability so that they have extra protections in the event of their arrest. Establishing connections between the Autism community and law enforcement is critical if there is to be any changes to the way we police those living with disabilities. If there is no change that comes soon, who knows what can happen in the time that it does. All it would take is one quick moment for an isolated event becomes the next major news story with million of eyes watching and judging. The best way to keep everyone safe, is to make it so that we are all equally safe, no matter your ethnicity, ability or intelligence. With implementation of laws and mandatory trainings for everyone in every service that caters to the community it would only make sense that everyone is treated in a normal manner under the law both at the state and federal level.
"Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder | CDC." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Koh, Elizabeth. "New Law Requiring Autism Training for Police Officers to Take Effect." Miamiherald
"Information for Law Enforcement." Autism Speaks
Egeland, Alexis. "Police Video Shows Buckeye Officer Detain Autistic Teen He Thought Was Using Drugs." Azcentral
Gómez, Laura. "Autism Groups Say Families Must Prepare for Police Encounters - and Officers Need Better Training." Azcentral
"The U.S. Justice System Has an Autism Problem." Dallas News