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

Guidance Document for First Responders: Click here for the full publication Law Enforcement and other First Responders