When you encounter a person who may have ASD, how should you respond differently than you do with other persons? This module suggests some strategies for you consider that in some cases may help you ensure a safe, professional, and productive encounter.
Module 6 Objectives
- Describe specific strategies and techniques to consider when encountering a person who may have ASD during the course of your professional duties.
Module 6 Topics
- What practices and techniques are likely to produce the best outcomes during encounters with persons you suspect may have ASD?
- What practices will help resolve situations involving behaviors common in persons with ASD?
Once you recognize that you have encountered an individual who may have ASD, you may find that, in addition to the tactics in which you have been trained, the following techniques may help you successfully deal with a situation involving a person with ASD.
In this module, we will describe general techniques that may be successful for interacting with persons with ASD who are in a situation that may be stressful or scary for them. Additionally, we will provide some specific strategies that may be helpful when a person exhibits certain behaviors that are often seen in persons with ASD.
What are some recommended actions when encountering individuals with ASD?
Compared to calls and interactions with victims, witnesses, or suspects who do not have autism, you must strive to de-escalate the situation and prevent additional agitation using an approach that may be a bit different from your usual tactics. The goal is to use techniques that will reduce fear and anxiety that may cause a person with ASD to react negatively to an encounter with law enforcement.
These actions might look slightly different depending upon the circumstances, but they apply across most of the circumstances in which you might encounter someone with ASD.
Techniques for Initiating Interactions and Approaching the Person
- If called to respond to a person with ASD who has been reported missing, the following techniques may be helpful:
- Check bodies of water, as persons with ASD may be drawn to water.
- Bring pictures of people or places the individual knows or likes.
- When you encounter the person who has been reported missing, he or she may resist leaving the location. Incorporate the person's unique preferences or show pictures or objects the person likes. For example, if a person adores Sesame Street characters, you can tell him/her, "Elmo would be happy if you came home."
- When you begin to interact with a person whose behavior suggests they may have ASD:
- Watch for characteristic behaviors and mannerisms that you learned about in previous modules.
- Look for medical alert bracelets, ask the person, or ask others who may be present. Other children often know if a child has ASD.
- Approach the person slowly and calmly.
- Speak clearly and not too quickly. Use polite requests, not strong demands. Use a quiet, calm, reassuring tone of voice.
- Use simple sentences.
- Ask a question or make a comment and give the person time to respond before you ask another question.
- Be prepared for the person to attempt to run or simply casually wander away from you even if they did nothing wrong.
- The person may be scared or confused, or just unaware that they are supposed to remain with you.
- When possible, try to stay about 3 to 5 feet away from the individual to avoid crowding or towering above the person.
- Reduce sensory stimulation from light and sound.
- Consider turning down the volume on unit or side radios; turning off lights, sirens, and engines; and moving away from barking dogs or loud voices.
- Ask the person to move indoors or inside of a car before trying to talk to him/her.
- Offer a blanket with which to cover eyes, ears, or body.
- Introduce yourself, preferably with your first name, and explain why you are present.
- Try to establish rapport or form a connection with the person.
- Use the person's name often. Also, you might comment on something that the individual is holding or wearing. For example: "I see you are holding Tigger. He is my favorite."
- Explain everything that is occurring and the process of what is going to happen.
- It is very important for people with ASD to have advance notice of what is going to happen to them.
- When possible, ask permission before touching the person in any way.
- For example, you might say, "Can I shake your hand?"
- A person with ASD might not find a pat on the back, hug, or other such reassurances to be comforting and physical touch may inadvertently cause distress in some cases.
Techniques for Communicating
- Avoid having too many different people communicating with the person with ASD. Other responders can relay information to the officer designated to talk with the individual. Social interactions can be difficult to process. Anxiety caused by social interaction may be reduced by keeping the number of people the person needs to communicate with low.
- Position yourself at the person's eye level.
- Don't expect or demand eye contact. As noted before, eye contact may be very difficult for many individuals with ASD.
- Ask questions or give instructions in direct, short, simplified language.
- Instead of saying, "Why don't you take a seat over there on the curb, young man?" say, "Please sit down on this curb" while pointing to the curb or demonstrating the action of sitting on the curb. The visual cues (demonstrating and pointing) may be easier for the individual to understand than the verbal instructions.
- Ask one question or make one request at a time and provide extended wait time for a response.
- Provide more wait time for a response to a question. If no response is given, ask again using different words.
- Ask the person to demonstrate they understand what you have told them by having them explain what you said in their own words, show you, or repeat some aspect.
- Clearly explain and demonstrate on yourself or another officer what you want the person to do.
- You might say, "I want you to walk with me like this. See how Officer John is walking with me?"
- If the person is a witness or victim, ask if you can call someone to be with him/her.
- If you receive a bizarre or unanticipated response from a question/command, reword your question/command in a way that is less likely to be misinterpreted or taken literally.
- For example, after asking someone if they wish to waive their Miranda rights, the person waves her hand, you can tell he/she has taken the information too literally.
Techniques for Increasing Compliance
- Offer choices when possible.
- For example, "You can sit on the curb or sit in my car. Which do you want to do?"
- Use "if-then" statements to obtain compliance.
- For example, if the person has shown interest in your equipment, but you need him/her to move to another location, you may say, "If you come with me, then I'll let you hold my flashlight."
Techniques for Calming the Individual
- Reassure the person often that they are safe, and everything will be OK.
- Some of the following techniques can help the person relax and calm themselves:
- You may notice that the individual engages in mildly unusual behaviors such as rocking, flapping hands, holding his/her body in an unusual position, bouncing on his/her toes, or making unusual finger movements. Allow the person to continue these behaviors because they may be a way for the individual to calm himself.
- Offer something soft or textured for the person to hold, or allow them to continue holding a preferred item that he/she may already have in his/her hands if it is not a dangerous item.
- If containment is necessary for safety, consider restraining the person on their side, as it is easier to breathe and he/she may be less likely to struggle against the restraint if he can see other people.
- Notify jail or hospital personnel upon your arrival that the person in custody may have ASD.
- Recognize that people with ASD may respond very differently to the same situation.
- Some people may show extreme interest in an officer's uniform, equipment, or patrol car.
- For others, these may trigger a response of fear or panic. Understand that the person's intent is not likely to harm anyone, but to get away from a situation that is stressful or scary for him/her.
In general, if you encounter an individual who appears to be unresponsive to simple commands; who doesn't seem to want to look at you; who is exhibiting unusual, repetitive behaviors; who may not talk; who may have unusual speech patterns; or who may make unusual vocal sounds, you should consider that the person may have ASD. Policing techniques that you may use with typical persons will probably not work for individuals with ASD. In fact, those techniques may actually make the situation worse. In the next module, we will describe common policing techniques that you should avoid if you suspect a person you encounter has ASD.
Get Safe Training Video
The following video from Get Safe provides helpful tips for first responders who encounter persons with autism. In the video, two adults with autism, and parents of individuals with autism, talk about characteristics of autism that first responders may observe. They also give recommendations for interacting with someone who may have autism.
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