How Law Enforcement Can Improve Training For Disabilities Like Autism or Down Syndrome

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath


POLICE CARIf you have a son, daughter, or student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), potential encounters with the police may be a concern. These interactions often lack understanding between both parties, as law enforcement often encounters people with developmental disabilities in high-stress situations, with little to no training or experience. Similarly, these situations can be confusing or disorientating for people with autism or down syndrome, which officers may misinterpret as noncompliance.

More and more news stories across the country are popping up about individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities interacting with police with a wide range of consequences. Sometimes, these interactions end in tragedy that could have been prevented. In January 2013, Ethan Saylor, who had down syndrome, died after an encounter with law enforcement, according to NPR. After seeing a movie in theaters, Ethan went back inside to try to see the movie a second time without buying a second ticket. His support aide was busy getting the car. Three off-duty sheriff's deputies, who were working as security guards, confronted him.

His mother, Patti Saylor filed a civil lawsuit that says the deputies "tried to drag him from the theater," and Ethan "ended up on the floor with at least one deputy on top of him." Ethan stopped breathing while on the floor of the movie theater. He was later pronounced dead at a local hospital from asphyxia. According to the deputies, they asked Ethan to leave before taking him by the arms and denied any wrongdoing in the case. His death was ruled a homicide and a Frederick County grand jury cleared the deputies of criminal charges.

Ethan's death highlighted the lack of training in law enforcement when it comes to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Ever since, Patti Saylor has been advocating for educational training to increase safe interactions between law enforcement & people like Ethan.

Unfortunately, Ethan’s story is not an isolated incident, and similar encounters occur in communities across the United States. Officers need to understand the features of autism and related conditions to prevent tragic events like what happened to Ethan. However, law enforcement professionals need help because this kind of knowledge is not currently covered in typical police training. Specialized training can help reduce risk, providing both parties with the tools needed for safer interactions. 

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Implementing Comprehensive Training Practices

Traditional law enforcement training centers on a methodology which focuses on gaining and maintaining control, with police training programs averaging 168 hours teaching officers how to use force, weapons, and defensive tactics, while only 10 hours on average is dedicated to mental health training, as per NPR. There is no current metric of course time devoted to disability training.

People with intellectual disabilities may struggle to follow process orders, which makes it difficult to follow directions or manage emotions.  "It's not always noncompliance. It's not always resistance. Sometimes it's inability," said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is now a University of South Carolina law professor.  "The officer very often will perceive that inability as a refusal.”

Currently, there are some police training programs for what is referred to as crisis intervention training, and it falls under the umbrella of addressing issues of mental illness and substance abuse. This training may be helpful in a few ways  - teaching law enforcement good communication skills, patience, and how to earn a person's cooperation, even in unique circumstances. But, without specific training oriented toward disability, it may still be difficult for an officer to identify when and how to adjust their behavior. 

Luckily, there is a growing demand for courses to increase safe interactions between law enforcement & those who have autism and related disabilities. These courses connect police officers with the families of children on the autism spectrum so that both parties can understand each other better. The goal of these trainings is to teach skills for safe interaction, and bear similarities to other community policing practices. 

Niagara University has a training course focused on mental health and de-escalation training for law enforcement professionals. Mental health is different from Autism Spectrum Disorder, but many of the same tactics and strategies apply. The training focuses on how to demonstrate empathy, recognizing emotions others are feeling, responding appropriately, positive communication techniques that emphasize active communication and proper body language. The training program also focuses on strategizing, like de-escalation and non-escalation strategies that focus on defusing the situation, what to do when subject is defensive, uncooperative or threatening, and understanding strategies to utilize in regards to follow up, and prevention of reoccurrence.

“BE SAFE THE MOVIE” training uses video modeling to teach viewers how to interact with the police in everyday encounters, providing models that help viewers of all abilities learn what to say or do when encountering the police. The video provides an accessible way to improve communication between both parties during a high-stakes situation, including strategies for staying calm, familiarizing oneself with protocol and gear, as well self-disclosing a disability. 

In Albany New York, the Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region is helping train both police officers and new drivers the area. First, they bring new drivers on the autism spectrum together to meet local police. After the new drivers and the officers meet, everyone gets into their cars, and practice getting pulled over. The police pretend to pull over each young driver to practice what to do and say in that situation, including telling the officer about their autism.

Leveraging Technology to Improve Communications 

During a high-stakes interaction, it is critical that both parties have the tools needed, and information is valuable. The main obstacle in ensuring safety for people with intellectual disabilities during an interaction with law enforcement is a potential breakdown in communication. Training is the first step in bridging the communication gap between people with autism or intellectual disabilities and law enforcement, but if police are able to know that an individual has ASD before entering the situation, a miscommunication or excessive force situation can further be avoided. 

A safety profile provides additional information to 911 so they can help faster during an emergency. One of the most valuable features of a safety profile is the ability to self-disclose medical history, including any intellectual disability, mental health concerns, or past substance abuse. The profile can even disclose specific instructions, such as communication concerns that may arise during an encounter with law enforcement. 

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.


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