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Information on this page is provided by

The Autism Society

 www.autsim-society.org

First responders should have basic knowledge of how to meet the individual’s needs and, if additional assistance is necessary, collaborate with a professional familiar with autism.

First responders should also be aware that autism is a spectrum disorder that affects every individual to a differing degree. Individuals may be highly verbal or nonverbal, have above-average intelligence or cognitive limitations (intellectual disability), and may respond differently to sensory stimuli. During instances of heightened anxiety or when they do not know what is expected of them, individuals with ASD may also lose some of their abilities more readily. Providing reassurance will assist in alleviating the individual’s anxiety and discomfort. Success in providing services is more likely when a first responder assisting a person with ASD has information regarding the individual’s regular behavior and communication patterns. First responders should have basic knowledge of how to meet the individual’s needs and, if additional assistance is necessary, collaborate with a professional familiar with autism. For officers conducting initial investigative interviews, it will be essential to be comfortable with the individual. If there is doubt as to the abilities of an interviewer, seeking out a Forensic Interviewer with knowledge of autism will aid dramatically in the development of a case for prosecution. Individuals with ASD often seek “sameness” or consistency; therefore, if initial contacts with first responders are negative, the investigation could be prolonged. Knowledge of the individual’s method of communication is vital, thus the interviewer should have resources available for working with an interpreter or facilitator. It is estimated that 30% to 50% of individuals with autism are nonverbal and even those who are verbal may process and communicate information in different ways. Individuals with ASD may have immediate or delayed echolalia (the repetition or echoing of verbal utterances made by another person). Immediate echolalia may be used with no intent or purpose or may have a very specific purpose for the individual. Delayed echolalia appears to tap into long-term auditory memory, can involve the recitation of entire scripts, and can also have both noncommunicative and communicative functions. Knowing the individual well is a key to understanding his or her specific use of echolalia and other communication traits. Ensuring the interview setting is private and lacks distractions is also essential. All parties involved should be aware that interviews of crime victims on the autism spectrum will take more time. Within the courtroom setting there will be time needed to prepare an individual to participate in the process of a trial. Assisting the individual with ASD to become familiar with the setting, the concepts involved, and expectations will allow them to participate more effectively. It is also very important that if a person with ASD is a victim of a crime, they be reassured that they will be safe in the presence of the perpetrator. At the end of prosecution, no matter the outcome, an explanation will be required to allow for closure. Appropriate

 

Autism and First Responders

POLICE OFFICERS AND OTHER FIRST RESPONDERS MAY ENCOUNTER OR BE ASKED TO PROVIDE SERVICES TO A PERSON WITH AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER. RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS OF AUTISM AND KNOWING EFFECTIVE WAYS TO APPROACH A PERSON ON THE AUTISM SPECTRUM CAN MINIMIZE SITUATIONS OF RISK OR VICTIMIZATION OF THE INDIVIDUAL, AS WELL AS THE RISK TO THOSE INTERVENING.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty picking up social cues (social referencing) and understanding other individual’s thoughts and intentions, making them vulnerable to a range of crimes, from fraud and theft to more violent crimes. Individuals with ASD are also generally taught compliance from a very young age, making them easy targets for abuse and victimization. When assisting a crime victim who is on the autism spectrum, first responders should take specific actions to communicate with and support the individual.

Considerations for Police and other First Responders There will be many situations in which a person on the autism spectrum may encounter police. A survey of individuals with ASD and their families indicated that 35% of individuals with autism had been the victim of a crime and that 23% have had interactions with first responders due to wandering or eloping (Autism Society, 2006). When responding to situations involving individuals with ASD, officersshould take into consideration that individuals with disabilities are often taught compliance – values and beliefs that affect behavior and social etiquette that may make them more vulnerable to victimization. Individuals on the autism spectrum may:

  • Not question “rules” or those in charge
  • Not be assertive
  • Agree with adults or authority figures out of necessity
  • Always honor other people’s opinions or their personal choices may not be honored by others
  • Be taught to be obedient and dependent Due to the nature of autism and the social environments in which individuals with ASD may live, the risk for victimization and abuse is heightened by:
  • The individual’s reduced privacy
  • Lack of teaching regarding healthy sexuality and decision-making
  • Reduced expectations by caregivers and others
  • Rewards provided for obedience and passivity
  • Limited friendships and increased social isolation
  • Negative attitudes toward those with disabilities
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Characteristics of Autism

Persons on the autism spectrum may act in any of the following
ways in an encounter with police officers and other first responders.

Care should be taken not to misinterpret some of these actions
as deliberate, disrespectful or hostile.

Persons with ASD may:

• Not recognize a first responder vehicle, badge,
or uniform

• Not understand what is expected of them

• Not respond to commands

• Run or move away when approached

• Be unable to communicate with words

• Only repeat what is said to them

• Communicate only with sign language, pictures
or gestures

• Avoid eye contact

• Appear argumentative or stubborn

• Say “No!” or “Yes!” in response to all questions

• Have difficulty judging personal space

• Try to avoid sensory input (e.g., flashing lights, sirens,
crowds) due to hypersensitivity

• Have a decreased cognitive ability when experiencing
heightened anxiety or frustration

• Become anxious or agitated, producing fight or
flight responses or behaviors such as screaming,
hand flapping, or self-injurious behaviors

• Appear to be under the influence of narcotics or
intoxicants

• Have an associated medical condition such as
seizure disorder

• Be fixated on a particular object or topic, and may
ask repeated questions

• Speak in a monotone voice with unusual pronunciations

Reverse pronouns (“Can I stop?” instead of
“Can you stop?”)

• Give misleading statements or false confessions

• Have problems speaking at the correct volume

• May, if verbal, be honest to the point of bluntness
or rudeness

• Not acknowledge physical pain or trauma due to
hyposensitivity

• Not be able communicate the extent of trauma
due to a lack of understanding of healthy sexuality
or appropriate boundaries in care provider or
other relationships

• Have the need for a Forensic Interviewer with
knowledge of autism

• Not have knowledge of the criminal justice system
and the expectations to assist in prosecution

First responders and paramedics involved in search-and-rescue
response should be aware that individuals with ASD will seek out
items and locations that hold fascinations for them. Examples
include water sources, trains, and cars. Individuals may go to these
places without realizing the potential dangers involved. During
fires, individuals with autism have been known to hide in closets
or under beds to escape from the sound of fire alert systems.

Learn More