What Cops Need to Know About Autism
As I’ve written before, I have an autistic son. I’ve also been a cop for almost 23 years. So when I saw the video of North Miami PD shooting the caretaker of an autistic man last July, and heard the officer’s explanation that he was actually trying to shoot the autistic man, I was…perplexed.
Just from a tactical perspective, I didn’t get the reasoning behind that shooting. From the camera’s angle I didn’t see anything that looked like a gun, I clearly saw the caretaker with his hands up explaining the situation, and I didn’t get why the caretaker was cuffed after being shot if the officer supposedly fired to protect him.
But most importantly, I saw the autistic man doing something that could have been a sign to the responding officers.
On many occasions I’ve seen my autistic son lift objects to his eyes like that, or rub his fingers together at the corners of his eyes. Had I been on that scene, I would have immediately told everyone to back off, and explained why. The officers on that scene, through no fault of their own, seem not to have recognized that sign.
I’ve never been scared of a cop (at least in America; overseas was a different story). Despite the alleged oppression Hispanics have suffered, despite having family members complain to me about their awful treatment when they were arrested for things they were actually guilty of, despite the usual negative portrayal of cops on TV and in the media, I was never, ever, scared of an American cop. But now that I have an autistic son, I have to worry. Because I don’t know if my son, when he reaches adulthood, might somehow wind up in a situation where an untrained police officer might mistake him for a threat.
When I became a cop in 1994, I don’t remember any training about autism. We get some now, but what I’ve received is more about the basics of autism than how it specifically applies to my job. The number of kids diagnosed with autism has skyrocketed since I started this career, so new cops can expect to encounter a lot more autistic people than I ever did.
I speak autism and I speak cop, so after the North Miami shooting I started trying to figure out ways to spread knowledge about autism to street cops. I’ve come up with some examples, based on firsthand knowledge, of situations where a cop might mistake an autistic person for a threat.
First, I should say THIS IS ORIENTED TOWARD PATROL OFFICERS. Pretty much every other type of cop (detectives, accident investigators, etc.) arrives after the situation is settled and main players identified, but patrol shows up to mass confusion and a thousand unknowns. Patrolmen need this more than any other type of cop.
EXAMPLE 1: You’re on patrol and get a “see complainant” call at a house, with no additional information. You arrive at the house, knock on the door, and get invited inside. Inside the front room are a middle-aged couple and a teenage boy. Everything is calm. As you begin talking to the middle-aged couple, the teenage boy suddenly grabs your arm and yanks you toward the front door.
What would you do?
Something similar happened to me while I was conducting an investigation. I knew when I entered this house that a teenage boy with autism lived there. When he grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the door, I knew exactly what he was doing: he wanted to go for a ride. He wanted me to put him in my car and drive somewhere. I knew this because my autistic boy loves to go for rides, and has done the exact same thing with me many times.
As cops, we should always be vigilant. We should always be prepared to encounter a surprise threat. If I hadn’t known an autistic person was in that house, and didn’t have an autistic son myself, I would have reacted defensively when that teenage boy grabbed me. I would have yanked my arm away. I would probably have shoved him away to create distance. I would likely have drawn a Taser or baton. And none of that would have been necessary, because the boy wasn’t any kind of a threat.
If I had reacted like a cop instead of the father of an autistic son, I would likely have made the situation worse. Foreknowledge of autism kept me from overreacting and maybe harming an innocent person.
Example 2: You receive a “prowler” call in a neighborhood late at night, with a detailed suspect description. You drive into the neighborhood, turn a corner and see your suspect walking down the street. You drive up to him, get out of your car and yell at him to stop. He immediately sticks his fingers in his ears.
Most cops I know would get mad. We’ve known since childhood that sticking your fingers in your ears means “Lalalalala I’m not listening to you!”, and that would piss most of us off.
But you know what else it could be? It could be an autistic person who wandered from his house (like the man in North Miami) and has sensitivity to loud noises. I’ve been around autistic kids who have to always wear hearing protection because they’re so sensitive. I’ve seen my son melt down at an airshow, even with earmuffs, because he couldn’t stand the sound of the Blue Angels flying overhead. I once took him with me when I taught a class on autism, and at the end when the audience applauded he immediately stuck his fingers in his ears.
Autism often involves hypersensitivity to sensory stimulation. If you encounter someone who acts like they’re ignoring your shouted commands, it may mean they actually can’t handle the shouting.
Example 3: You make a “routine” traffic stop on an SUV. A driver and passenger are in the front seat. As you’re getting out of your car, you see the passenger take his seat belt off, climb over his seat and disappear into the cargo area. Threatening or not?
One night a long time ago I found a vehicle that had just been involved in an aggravated robbery. The passenger was reportedly armed. When I turned around behind the vehicle, the passenger looked back, reached down and dropped the seatback so I couldn’t see him. Was he drawing the pistol he had just used in the robbery? Was he prepping an AK? I had no idea.
Yes, the passenger in example 3 could be a threat. I’m not telling anyone to disregard that possibility. But it could also be someone like my son: very often, as soon as we stop the car he pops his seat belt and climbs into the back of our SUV. People with autism often do things that make no outward sense, and in the wrong situation we cops can badly misinterpret those things.
Example 4: You get a call of a man either naked or in his underwear walking around an apartment complex parking lot speaking incoherently.
If your patrol areas are anything like the beats I worked, your first thought was probably “PCP.” People on PCP often take all their clothes off because their skin feels itchy or crawly or something, and they ramble nonsensically. They can also be insanely violent. Getting a call of someone outdoors in underwear acting suspiciously was reason for me to prep for a fight.
But my son also likes to run around naked, or in his underwear. And he rambles, repeats phrases from songs or random conversations, or says things that make no sense. If my son was an adult, got out of the house at night and did those things, a reasonable person would call the police on him. When the officer arrived, my son wouldn’t respond to his commands. And a reasonable cop would think my son was on PCP or something similar.
But he’s not. He’s just a little boy, with a problem that looks like something else.
Autistic people can display a lot of odd behaviors. Talking to themselves, spinning, suddenly sprinting away, tapping on things repeatedly (like hundreds of times a day), rocking, humming, chewing strange objects, wearing clothes backwards, spitting, all kinds of things. They can be aggressive. They can also overreact to things that don’t bother typical people and ignore things the rest of us would freak about; for example, my son screams like he’s being tortured when we cut his toenails, but barely cried when he broke his arm. Their actions can mimic dangerous, drug-induced behaviors. So we cops need to not jump to conclusions when we see someone acting in ways that look criminal.
The problem is, autism isn’t always so easy to recognize. You’ve probably seen videos posted online of kids melting down in public as parents try fruitlessly to calm them; those videos are usually accompanied by comments like “This is what’s wrong with parenting today” or “That kid needs a spanking.” Those commenters don’t see what I see: a kid who’s probably autistic and whose parents don’t want to resort to physical force.
In my first year as a cop, I was on an accident scene. I saw two men standing on the curb and asked if they were witnesses. One said he saw the accident; he was extremely nervous, but that’s not so unusual. But when I started talking to him, the other man began waving frantically and mouthing something I couldn’t understand. I told him to wait, and went on with the interview.
The witness haltingly told me what he had seen. Then he said, “Officer, I need to show you something.” He took out his wallet, pulled a small badge sticker out, and asked, “They gave me this at school. Does it mean I’m a police officer?”
Until that moment, I had no idea the man had a disability. The other man had been trying to tell me about it, but I didn’t catch either his warning or the subtle signs of the witness’s problem. Some autistic people are so severely affected you recognize it right off the bat, but those aren’t the ones you need to worry about. The concern is with those you don’t recognize as autistic.
Guys, please keep in mind: NOTHING I SAY CONTRADICTS ANY OFFICER SAFETY TRAINING. I am NOT telling officers to put themselves in more danger. I’m saying some autistic people may not immediately be recognizable as autistic, some autistic behaviors may look more threatening than they actually are, and in some situations an officer may be able to re-assess what they’re looking at, ask if they’re dealing with an autistic person rather than an uncooperative or dangerous suspect, and say, “This might not be what it looks like.”
One crappy truth is that some autistic people can be dangerous. Not because of the autism, but because of other problems such as schizophrenia, psychosis or violent ideations. According to a CNN report, “Research has shown that people with autism spectrum disorder are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the population. A 2008 review found that 84% of violent offenders with autism also had an underlying psychiatric disorder at the time they committed the crime.” The Sandy Hook shooter was on the autism spectrum, but had other issues that led to the mass murder. The Fairchild Air Force Base active shooter in 1994 was diagnosed by one psychiatrist with Asperger’s (that diagnosis is suspect), but had multiple other psychological problems. A high school student with Asperger’s plus violent ideations was caught as he planned a mass school shooting and bombing in 2013.
[Dean Mellberg, the Fairchild Air Force Base active shooter]
But the vast majority of autistic people aren’t dangerous. And if we encounter an autistic person like the one in North Miami, who was reported to be dangerous and was acting in a way that looked aggressive but wasn’t, we don’t want to mistake this innocent person for a lethal threat. Guys, too much of the public hates us already. We don’t need to start killing autistic people and make it worse.
Last thing, and it really sucks to admit this: As a street cop, I wasn’t cruel, I wasn’t brutal, but I was hard-hearted. I worked rough areas and dealt with murderers, rapists, robbers, about a million crack addicts, and all the nonsense that follows them. I viewed everyone with if not suspicion, at least cynicism.
And I know, without question, that I dealt with people on the autism spectrum. But I didn’t recognize it back then. I didn’t realize I was dealing with people who needed help, and I didn’t treat them very well. And now I have to worry that my son will run across a cop like me someday.
My little autistic boy.
I can’t fix anything in the past. But by talking to cops about autism, I might protect my son from future bad encounters with police. I know: that’s a totally selfish goal. But maybe, if I get the word out to enough cops and their departments, I can help other autistic sons and daughters too. And maybe I can even prevent some young cop from ruining his life by killing an autistic person he thought was a threat.
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Chris Hernandez (Mad Duo Chris, AKA “Autism Dad”), seen here on patrol in Afghanistan, may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.