Module 7: Actions to Avoid In Encounters with Individuals Who May Have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)


The previous module discussed techniques to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome when you encounter a citizen with ASD. This module will describe practices to avoid that can negatively affect a situation. If possible, you should try to avoid these practices.

Module 7 Objectives

  • Describe specific practices to avoid that may worsen a situation when dealing with a person with ASD.

Module 7 Topics

  • What are some specific practices to avoid when encountering victims, witnesses, and suspects with ASD?
  • Why might those practices make a situation worse for an individual with ASD?

In this module, we will describe practices which may be appropriate to use with non-disabled persons, but will likely make a situation much worse when involving persons with ASD. We will discuss these practices, and why they may be troublesome for individuals with ASD.


The following statements explain these common policing practices to avoid, and why these practices should be avoided, if possible, when interacting with persons who may have ASD.

  • Don’t demand or expect eye contact.
    • Eye contact is very difficult for many individuals with ASD. Some of these individuals have even described eye contact as “painful.” Because of this, people with ASD will often resist eye contact. They may turn their head away. If their face is oriented toward you, they may simply avert their eyes to the side, or look past you.
    • As long as the individual is calm and remaining in place, you can continue to talk to them without eye contact.
  • Avoid multiple people asking questions or giving multiple instructions at one time.
    • Social interactions can be confusing and intimidating, so designating only one officer to talk to the individual may result in better responses.
    • Individuals with ASD may have difficulty understanding speech, and it may take them longer to decipher what is being said. Also, they may have difficulty distinguishing your voice from other background noises (traffic, sirens, other people talking, etc.).
    • Talking rapidly, or giving a lot of instructions or asking a lot of questions, one right after the other, may cause confusion for someone with ASD. That confusion may make them more agitated or upset.
    • Instead, ask simple questions, one at a time, and give the person time to respond. The person may need several seconds – or even longer – to think about what you are saying and give a response.
  • Avoid yelling or speaking in a loud, strong tone of voice.
    • If a person does not seem to understand what you are asking, try asking or explaining in a simpler way.
    • Loud voices may cause agitation or fear in someone with ASD. In this situation, they may whine, cry, engage in repetitive behavior, or other unusual behaviors, especially those individuals who are unable to use speech to communicate.
    • Instead, talk quietly, calmly, and in a reassuring tone.
  • Don’t attempt to get the person to stop the repetitive, self-stimulating behaviors, such as hand flapping, rocking, making unusual noises, or spinning objects.
    • For most people with ASD, these behaviors are not harmful or dangerous, but rather are like a habit (like tapping your foot, or jingling keys or coins in your pocket).
    • These behaviors may increase when the individual is upset or excited.
    • Some people with ASD may engage in these behaviors as a way to calm themselves.
    • Instead, if the behaviors are not dangerous or interfering with what you need to do, simply pay no attention to them.
  • If you are trying to get information from the person, avoid asking “leading” questions, as the person may try to answer in a way he/she thinks would please you.
    • As we discussed in Module 3, a common characteristic in individuals with ASD is repeating words or sentences, either from something they heard some time ago, like lines from TV commercials, or immediately after someone else speaks.
    • Sometimes, individuals with ASD will always answer a question in the same way, such as "Yes" or "My name is Stephen." For example:
      • Officer: "Are you lost?"
      • Stephen: "Yes."
      • Officer: "I will help you. Do you know your name?"
      • Stephen: "Yes."
      • Officer: "What is your name?"
      • Stephen: "Yes."
    • If you think this is occurring, try asking a question that should produce a new, different response. For example:
      • Officer: "Are you lost?"
      • Stephen: "Yes"
      • Officer: "I will help you. What is your name?"
      • Stephen: "Yes"
      • Officer: "Tell me your Mom's name."
  • Do not ask questions that require complex answers.
    • Instead of asking the person to describe a vehicle, ask each part of the information you seek, one question at a time. "What color was the car? Was it old or new? Did the car have 2 doors or 4 doors?" 
  • Avoid pointing a flashlight in a person's face.
    • The discomfort and surprise of this may cause someone with ASD to react by screaming in a painful-sounding way, running, trying to grab the light, or some other unacceptable action.
    • Instead, point the light in a way that allows you to see without pointing it directly at the person.
  • Avoid keeping the lights and sirens on; discontinue lights and sirens as soon as possible.
    • As you have learned, people with ASD characteristically have difficulty filtering out a lot of stimuli in an environment, such as noises, lights, and conversation. It all blends together for them in a jumble of unpleasant sensations.
    • Harsh, loud noises and flashing lights may be particularly difficult for someone with ASD, and they may react as though they are in pain or very upset.
  • Avoid touching the person.
    • Just like their response to noise and lights, many individuals with ASD dislike touch of any kind, even gentle touch. Some have described touch as painful, or feeling like they are being burned.
    • If you must pat down or frisk the individual’s body, avoid touching him/her in a sudden or unexpected way.
    • If it is necessary to touch the person, tell them what you are going to do, if possible. Here are two examples:
      • Officer: "I am going to take hold of your arm now. Now I am going to help you move away from the water."
      • Officer: "I am going to use my hand to touch your shirt and pants. It won't hurt. It won't take long."
  • Avoid taking away a harmless object that the individual is holding, or telling the person to drop the object, even if it appears to be distracting the individual.
    • Individuals with ASD often become strongly attached to unusual objects (figurines, a photo, a piece of dirty cloth, a broken pencil), and carry those objects with them wherever they go. Sometimes, they focus most of their attention on the objects, or use the objects in their repetitive, self-stimulatory behaviors. For example, they may dangle the object in front of their eyes, or repeatedly sniff or shake the object.
    • Many individuals with ASD will become extremely distressed (crying, hitting themselves, biting themselves, etc.) if you try to make them part with their favorite object.
    • Instead, if possible, simply give them simple instructions about what you want them to do, and ignore the object.
    • Another strategy is to talk to the person about the object. For example:
      • Officer: "I see you have a picture. Do you like that picture?"
      • Stephen: "Yes."
      • Officer: "Tell me about your picture."

In summary, to increase the likelihood of positive outcomes of interactions with persons who may have ASD, you may need to use a more restrained, quiet, calm approach. The recommended techniques that we have described should help achieve desirable outcomes in these situations.

Module 6 | Summary