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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Police and Autism

I was recently asked by Age of Autism to share my opinion about the Police/ASD dynamic.  I am honored that they chose to publish my writing: 

Police and Autism

Alex was 5’9 and every bit of 200 lbs.  He was “uncontrollable” and destroying his family’s home.  We arrived to find Alex’s grandmother on the front porch.  Her arms were literally purple with bruises; the aftermath of one of Alex’s tantrums earlier in the month.  She directed us inside where Alex’s mother was trying in vain to calm him down.  We found him in the basement lying on his back.  Mom was trying to hold his hands.  She was crying.  She was sweating.  She was bleeding.  Around him were toddler toys:  Elmo dolls, a ring-toss game, coloring books.  There were no toddlers in the house.  The toys were Alex’s.  Alex was 14 years old.  He had Autism.

In recent months there have been many high profile incidents concerning police using force to deal with children and adults on the Spectrum:

-Police Taser Autistic Teen and Then, After Family Complains, Return and Arrest Teen
-Teen with autism shot to death by police
-Autistic Man with Toy Gun Killed by Miami Police Officers

The most gut-wrenching of these incidents involved a young man named Stephon Watts.  Stephon, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, was shot and killed by police in Calumet City, Ill on February 1st, 2012 after he slashed an officer with a kitchen knife.  This incident has gained national attention and stirred outrage within the ASD community.  I would like to offer my perspective.

I am a 16 year-veteran police officer.  I am a police K9 handler and trainer with 12 years experience in searching for wandering ASD individuals.  I am also an Autism Dad.

I see my son in the eyes of every ASD individual I meet.  After I met Alex and we finally got him under control, I pulled my patrol car off the road and cried for 30 minutes.  Believe me when I tell you, I fully understand both sides of the Stephon Watts incident.

Police officers are not diagnosticians.  Our job is public safety.  Our role is to protect the physical safety of the public we serve.  But make no mistake, our primary focus is on our own family and surviving our shift to return home to them.  Police officers make dozens of split second decisions a day.  Many of them involve life and death.  Sometimes we get it wrong.  Most of the time we get it right.  Tragically, on occasion, we get it right but still suffer the haunting agony that follows from ending a human life.  I do not know the Calumet City police officers who shot and killed Stephon.  There will be an Internal Affairs Investigation to determine the propriety of their actions.  I am confident, however, that they are grieving today.  They are questioning themselves and they are praying for forgiveness to whatever God they believe in.  I pray for them and I pray for Stephon and his family.  And I ask that you do too.

Statistics show that Special Needs individuals are seven times more likely to interact with the police than neurotypical individuals.  We are professionals.  We can do better.  We can increase our awareness and improve our training in dealing with Special Needs individuals.  Today I make a solemn promise to Stephon’s family and my own.  I will do my part.


  1. This is such a huge issue. Thank you for bringing it up. A couple of years ago one of the eastern Canadian provinces (Nova Scotia I think) began a registry of autistic individuals specifically to help bring awareness to the police forces in the area. The registry included specific ways to help each individual in times when police contact was necessary. I haven't heard how this has worked out.

  2. As a retired police officer with a son with high functioning autism I read the news reports of the shooting of Stephon with sorrow.

    I retired in 1992. Although I had lots of training, there was no training then on dealing with individuals who are special needs--except for the deaf. I hope that it's different now, and that the availability of non-lethal tools improves the situation.

  3. Thank-you... Awareness and better ability to handle/deal/work with our children has to begin somewhere. Thank-you on behalf of my severely effected son (and me as his mom) for caring enough to do what you can and for speaking up.

    Now if only there was a way to make this widespread enough to reach every district in every town... No one wants these tragedies to happen. Police and citizens alike. To prevent them though, there has to be some awareness and specified training/education. And willing officers like you who will care enough to listen and learn.

    --David's mom

  4. Though I respect your position, and have great respect for the police profession, I am disturbed by your description of the police person's role. I'm sorry, but I do believe that you must put your life on the line with this position, as a does a firefighter, soldier, etc. To be honest, that is why police officers are compensated at the level they are. Your job is not to just return safely to your family. Would you expect a firefighter to not try and save your child from a burning building??? It is the level of risk that one finds acceptable, that is the question. Years ago, being a physician was a risky profession, since one was constantly exposed to diseases, and their were no modern medicines. One must be aware, and trained about individuals with disabilities. Does someone deserve to get shot if they are deaf, and cannot hear a police officer's commands??? Does an individual with autism deserve to be brutalized because he cannot even understand the situation, or is in no position to handle it?? Training of many service personnel is required for public safety, and I do expect that to occur.
    Again, thank you for your thoughtfulness, and your explanation. I do respect the risk your profession must face every day, and am grateful for your sacrifice. However, I do expect individuals to act toward others as they themselves would expect to be treated, and to be aware of individuals with differences. I've always believed that in the motto "To Protect and Serve" that serve was the more important role.

  5. Mr. Anonymous,

    Thank you for your contribution. I am going to break my own rule and engage in a conversation with an anonymous critic. I am sorry that you are "disturbed" by my description. I believe you are misunderstanding my point.

    I assure you, I do not need to be reminded that I am compensated "to put (my) life on the line." I have done so willingly every day for last 16 years. When my phone rings at 3 A.M. to track a fleeing suspect, my wife cries herself back to sleep. I'm sorry if it "disturbs" you that my PRIMARY FOCUS is on returning home to her.

    I did not say our JOB was "just to return safely to (our) family," I said our PRIMARY FOCUS is on surviving and returning to our family. Sorry to burst your primetime-television-created bubble, but that is the primary focus of every healthy, non-psychotic cop and firefighter on the planet. We don't do suicide missions. We don't willingly accept the blade of a knife in the name of "serving" those who are "different." Please turn off the T.V.

  6. I'm sorry that my comments seemed rather rough. I do believe that one must put safety first. It just seems that that has become more the focus of our society. There is an element of risk in many situations, and one must judge that risk at all times. That is all. I do not believe in "suicide missions" but one must judge each situation reasonably. If a civilian used force in a situation, one would be very quick to judge was it reasonable?? That is all I am trying to get across. For a professional, I believe the bar should be much higher. But I am very sorry on how I worded my comment. I know that was not your meaning when you posted your piece. I should have made my position more clear. I was rushed, and that is no excuse. And by the way, I am the parent of a young child with classic autism, and a daughter of someone who served in the military, and in conjunction with his town and state police departments, and died at a young age (52). My mother also worried and cried many nights, hoping he would come home safe. God bless you for all you do. And thank you for the point of your posting, that all of us need more awareness and training to deal with individuals with differences. Thank you again, and sorry if my comments made you upset. That was not my intent, but I do know that I could have spent the time to make my point with more clarity, and less drama.

  7. I am the daughter of a cop (42 years on the job), and an autism mom, so I also see both sides of this issue. It is so disheartening, particularly as my son is about to become a teenager. Thankfully he is not very aggressive - more quirky yet engaging - but he needs to be much more mindful of boundaries and personal space. As he gets bigger and bigger others will see him as more of a threat.

  8. With due respect officer, while at college my son suffered this. He was walking back to his dorm when confronted by undercover police. He did not know who these two were. A tussle ensuded and they tackled my son and he was covered with scratches and blood. They procceded to try to take him to jail. He told them that he was bi-polar and that he would kill himself. He feared for his life. His crime? He was 21 and walking back from a bar. They thought he looked suspicous? He ended up in the hospital and we the parents were not informed for over ten hours. Due to this episode I have come to dislike the police very much. I used to donate all the time to them but after how they treated my son I do not anymore. When they call me I tell them why, and they no longer call me. I am thankful that my son was not shot, however they did not have to go that far. So maybe you are a kind officer, however there are some really bad evil ones also. Lots of mentally ill get shot by the police also. I doubt if I can ever respect an officer again.

  9. This is an incredibly important curriculum at I wish was in place in all schools and provided as training to police forces: http://www.5pointscale.com/smart_ideas_curvediagram_large.htm

  10. In combination with something like this: http://samatraining.com/

  11. More info: http://satorilearning.com/index.php/Welcome.html

  12. ok so as a parent to a 4 year old with ASD how can we start to form a safe respectful (on both sides) relationship? Our child is somewhat of a runner which as I'm sure for all parents makes me quite nervous. We live in a small town with a small police force?

    1. Glad you asked! ; ) I wrote another article on this topic with specific suggestions for parents. Please let me know what you think!


  13. I am a parent of a high functioning ASD son... he is only 8 years old, and stronger then I. He is a great loving boy and never intends on hurting anyone. His first instinct is not to hit... yet we still haven't hit the prime of puberty. He is at the moment stronger then I and when he gets upset he throughs and brakes things, and does an act as if he wants to hot you.... again he is 8. We are working on this behavior. None the less, as a person That lives in this world and understands the roles of a police officer as well as the consequences of actions, I can understand the action tokens by officers on duty... I do believe awareness can help save many and reduce the amount of pain brought to people living with autism as well as there families. You mention k9s.... animal therapy can come in handy in such situation.... perhaps creating a program for autistic individuals as well as the k9s departments ( working dogs unit) can brake a barrier in help of coming up with a solution. I can have my child learn some sort of rule using a working dog, one the police departments can work with as well.... creating a connection and building a bridge that can be effective and less aggressive... something we ( as an autism community, and officers can do together). Animal therapy. Just a thought in another direction ....I would be willing to.put into play any suggestion given by a department now while my son is still young.

  14. MY advise to everyone is to take your child, teen-ager, young adult, to the police department, law enforcement outreach center, and sheriff's department...introduce your child to the officers, all of them, in time, so law enforcement can get to know your child as part of the community, share information about Autism/ Asperger's Syndrome with them, so they can see that your child is not a threat but a member of the community, with differences...as our children grow older it is very possible that they may come in contact with law enforcement, when our children reach the age of 18 they are legally adults, and we need to have something in effect to protect them if they are interviewed by officers...teach our children/young adults to immediately ask for a parent or attorney to be called, even if all the officer says is that "he just wants to have a little talk" try to teach them never to run, even if they are terrified, officers take that as resisting an officer..I am posting this because I did not do these things, my grandson trusted an officer...did not understand him, and bad went from bad to very bad...the officers did not know my grandson, did not understand Asperger's Syndrome .. law enforcement is not our enemy, in some situations they protect, but in regard to our children they also are not our friend, so we need to be advocates for our loved ones, try to educate them so they might be able to be prepared in an emergency..please go online, look up rights of the 18 year old, because one day less that 18 years old your child can still have you with him or her while being interviewed by an officer, one day later, at 18 that not possible, unless a plan has already been put in motion..