Police Officers Study Complexities of Autism

Pacific Police officers attended a two-hour seminar on the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder March 26 as part of Gov. Jay Nixon’s program to expand mental health services in the state. Police Chief Matt Mansell said the training was another example of good community policing. Jennifer Houghey, Easter Seals Midwest community education specialist, conducted the seminar in the police department training room.  Missourian Photo.

Individuals who suffer from autism can run into difficulty with people in authority over something as simple as a misplaced word, according to Jennifer Houghey, Easter Seals Midwest community education specialist.

Houghey spent two hours with Pacific police officers describing characteristics of individuals who suffer from one of several autism spectrum disorders and offered tips officers can use to help the individual understand what they are being asked to do.

She described a recent incident when a young man was arrested and taken to the police station when an officer said, “Can I see your drivers license?” and the young man said, “No.”

At the station, the frustrated mother asked her son why he didn’t show the officer his drivers license.

“He didn’t ask me to show it to him,” the young man said. “He asked if he could see it and he couldn’t see it because it was in my pocket.”

He was not being uncooperative, Houghey said. He was being literal.

Police are likely to come in contact when a call involves an individual with autism who has wandered away, a disruption in a public place or misunderstanding of a rule.

In four out of five calls, the individual needs help rather than having done something wrong.

To help officers understand and identify the symptoms of autism, Houghey explained that several disorders that have been lumped into the autism spectrum can cause individuals to think so literally that they appear to be noncooperative.

In most cases, they will cooperate as soon as they grasp what is being requested, she said.

Fourteen members of the Pacific Police Department underwent the training session March 26 as part of the governor’s mental health initiative, which strives to provide appropriate public services to individuals with any mental health difficulty or disorder. Officers also viewed a video, “Autism & Law Enforcement: Roll Call Briefing.”

Among clues that help officers identify autism is that individuals have difficulty making eye contact.

“This can seem disrespectful to officers who are saying, ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you,’ ” Houghey said. “But in reality, the autistic individual grasps what you’re saying if they don’t have to look into your eyes.”

In another incident, a young man with autism walked toward a serious vehicle accident and an officer said, “You can’t be here.” The young man answered, “I can be here. This is a public sidewalk.”

After several repetitions of the exchange, the officer said, “There’s been an accident. It’s not safe for you to be here. You can come back when it is safe.”

“Oh,” the young man answered. “OK.”

They understand what safe means and are willing to cooperate when an officer takes a minute to explain it.

Police officers trained to recognize the symptoms of the mannerisms consistent with the autism spectrum can communicate effectively.

“They will cooperate once they grasp in a literal way what they’re being asked to do,” Houghey said.

Autism affects one in 73 individuals in the Midwest. Some are high-functioning, while others can be prone to violent meltdowns.

Mansell explained that the training is part of the governor’s emphasis on providing mental health services to the community.

“This is another example of effective community policing,” Mansell said. “We want to provide the best family services for the people in our community.”

An autistic youngster with the best of intentions can get into trouble, said Houghey, who described a 12-year-old boy who heard the smoke detector go off in the middle of the night. He knew what the sound meant and what he was supposed to do. He got up and went outside.

But he also knew he was supposed to obey all rules and there was a rule that he was not to go outside until he was dressed so he re-entered the burning house to get dressed and had to be rescued by firefighters.

In another case, a boy was told to crack a classroom window and did what he was told.

Autistic individuals tend to take things very literally. If a person in authority says, “Wait outside,” the individual is more likely to go outside the building than outside the room.

Houghey provided handout material that contained clues of how officers can identify the symptoms of autism and a series of tips on how to best communicate with them.

Easter Seals is a national provider of services for individuals with autism. The police officer training is designed to help officers identify individuals with autism and offers tips for effective communication.

For more information, visit www.esmw.org or 314-567-7705.