As you have learned, individuals with ASD characteristically exhibit atypical behaviors in three areas: communication, behavior, and social interactions. In this module, we will discuss unusual behaviors that you may observe in an individual with autism.
Module 4 Objectives
- List common behaviors and characteristics of ASD.
- Provide specific examples of how these behaviors and characteristics might influence interactions between you and people with ASD during the line of duty.
Module 4 Topics
- What are the behavior characteristics of ASD?
- What specific behaviors might indicate that an individual may have ASD?
Children and adults with ASD often display unusual, repetitive behaviors or mannerisms. These behaviors may manifest or increase in intensity when the individual is upset, frustrated, scared, or anxious. Under stressful emotional conditions, an individual with ASD may refuse to respond (e.g., refuse to answer or look at an officer), engage in repetitive body movements (e.g., rocking back and forth, pace in circles, flap hands rapidly, etc.) and/or they may attempt to run away, try to injure himself (e.g., hit their own head with fist), or may become aggressive toward the officer.
Most individuals with ASD exhibit several types of atypical behaviors. These behaviors may be odd, disturbing, or dangerous. In some cases, these behaviors are the result of the underlying neurological conditions associated with ASD, or they may be behaviors that the individual has learned to do for comfort or self-calming purposes.
Most individuals with ASD do best when they follow a set routine, and variations in that routine may cause them distress. The unusual behaviors that we describe in this module may be part of an individual’s routine similar to the ritualistic behavior observed in people with obsessive compulsive disorder. For this reason, unless the behaviors present a risk of some kind, it may be better to avoid attempting to make the individual stop. For example, if flapping hands helps to calm a person down during an emergency and doing so does not interfere with your duties, then it is probably best to allow the person to continue. In many cases, these behaviors are simply a different way of coping with stress and denying that coping mechanism may complicate your efforts to keep everyone safe.
What are common behavior characteristics in individuals with autism?
Extreme sensitivity to normal stimuli
Many individuals with ASD display abnormal sensitivity to normal stimuli, such as sounds, lights, reflections, textures, or other stimuli that we may not even notice. Even the uniform of a police officer (shiny badge, the sounds from the communication radio, texture of fabric, etc.) may be the source of notable discomfort. Individuals with ASD may not be able to identify the source of this distress when asked, especially in new or confusing situations. For some with ASD, these stimuli may seem overwhelming, confusing, or even painful.
Individuals with ASD commonly display various unusual mannerisms such as:
- hand flapping
- bouncing on toes
- body rocking or swaying
- holding parts of his body in unusual positions
- biting arm, hitting head, or other forms of self-injury
- avoiding eye contact
- repeating vocalizations (for example "eeeeeee")
These behaviors may be caused by atypical neurological development, or they may be a way for the individual to block out other forms of sensory input. For example, by making loud repetitive vocalizations, they may block out noise they do not want to hear. In other cases, these types of behaviors may be a subtle form of communication. For example, flapping hands may be an effective way to tell caregivers that the person needs a break from a task, or biting one’s arm may be an effective way to get a caregiver to provide additional attention or support. Although these behaviors may seem strange, most of the time they are not harmful to the person or others. Regardless of the reason, these behaviors are likely to become more intense as the individual becomes more agitated, uncomfortable, confused, or afraid.
Individuals with ASD often display emotions that do not fit the situation. For example, someone with ASD may giggle repeatedly, even when they are not amused, such as when alone or lost. Or, the individual may appear extremely distressed, perhaps crying or asking for something over and over, even when officers are attempting to console the individual or actually trying to provide whatever was requested.
May appear unaware of surroundings
Individuals with ASD may appear oblivious to their surroundings, even potentially dangerous conditions. For example, they may walk or stand in the street, seeming to be unconcerned about the cars around them.
May have some type of object in hand or pocket, perhaps something unusual
Individuals with ASD often have favorite objects that they carry with them at all times. These objects may be the type of objects that children might have, such as a stuffed animal or small blanket. Or they may be unusual items that appear to have no value, such as an ad from a magazine, piece of string, or a straw. These objects may comfort the individual, or help him stay calm.
Attempts to make the individual put down the object may produce an agitated response, such as screaming, crying, or even aggression. As long as the object is not harmful, it may be preferable to allow the person to continue holding it. In fact, that object can even serve as a point of conversation with the individual. For example:
- Officer: "I see Elmo’s picture on your lunchbox."
- Response: "Elmo"
- Officer: "Do you like Elmo? I like Elmo, too."
May attempt to run or wander away before the officer is finished talking to him
This behavior may not mean the individual is being disrespectful or defiant. It may merely indicate that the individual is unaware of the officer, or that the individual is scared or anxious about having a stranger nearby.
If you get too close or try to physically direct the individual, someone with ASD may respond by trying to bite, hit, kick, or spit at the officer.
May not follow basic instructions
As you learned in Module 3, individuals with ASD often do not respond to basic commands such as, please sit down, stop that, put your hands down, or turn around. This is particularly true when commands are given by someone that the individual does not know.
Again, the person may not intend to be defiant or disrespectful. Rather, this lack of compliance may reflect the person’s inability to understand what is being asked of him, or may be the only apparent evidence that individual is scared or confused.
Suggestions for interacting with individuals with ASD
- State your request in simple one- or two-word statements.
- Demonstrate what you want the person to do.
- For example: "Sit down here (while demonstrating how and where you want them to sit). "See how I'm sitting down? Do this."
- Speak quietly and calmly.
- Have as few people as possible interact with the individual. It may be more confusing or scary to have multiple officers giving instructions.
- Repeating commands in the same manner repeatedly or using a louder tone of voice may result in the individual becoming more upset and noncompliant.
Autism Speaks Training Videos
Below, you will see a link to a series of videos on the website of Autism Speaks, an internationally recognized autism science and advocacy organization. These videos provide different simulations that illustrate the sensory overload characteristics that are common to many individuals with autism.
In Modules 6 and 7, we provide additional tips for interacting with individuals who may have ASD.