Module 2: Reasons Why Law Enforcement Officers Might Encounter an Individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

In this module, we will discuss reasons why you may encounter an individual with ASD during the course of your daily work activities.

Module 2 Objectives

  • Explain reasons why a first responder might encounter an individual with ASD.

Module 2 Topics

  • What are four reasons why law enforcement and other first responders might encounter individuals with ASD?

You may be wondering why it is important for law enforcement and other first responders to learn more about ASD. In this module, we will discuss some common reasons why you might encounter someone who has ASD.


All of the usual reasons law enforcement is involved with citizens may lead to an encounter with a person who has ASD

Of course, a first responder might encounter someone with ASD for all the same reasons they might interact with any other individual. The person may have been involved in an accident, or may have been the witness to, or victim of a crime. However, there are reasons officers and other first responders may encounter someone with ASD that are less likely to occur with individuals without ASD.

Individuals with ASD may wander or run away from supervision

One common reason law enforcement and other first responders may encounter someone with ASD is that the individual may have run away or wandered away from his home, from a group, or from his family. According to a 2016 study, one third of all school-aged children with ASD wander or run away from supervision in a given year. A 2012 study reported that as many as half of all children with ASD attempt to wander or run away from supervision. Thus, caregivers may contact law enforcement for assistance in a situation where their child or student has wandered away.

One reason wandering or running away is a concern is that individuals with ASD are particularly vulnerable to becoming lost by wandering away. These children may become easily confused by new or unfamiliar surroundings. They may attempt to run away out of fear or anxiety if their routine changes, or if they encounter something unfamiliar that they do not understand. Or they may see something that they want and run toward it.

Individuals with ASD, especially children with ASD, may not have the communication skills to ask for help, or even to communicate that they are lost (see Module 3 for more information about speech and communication characteristics of individuals with ASD).


Law enforcement may be called because an individual is in a public place displaying unusual behaviors, which in some cases may be violent or aggressive

An older individual with ASD, in particular, may find himself alone or separated from his caregivers. The individual may not even be aware that he is “lost,” and may simply be entertaining himself by playing with items on display, opening and eating food from shelves, or going into areas where customers are not allowed, such as behind the check-out counter. Some individuals with autism may not be aware of what is and is not acceptable behavior in public. These individuals may display social behaviors that are disturbing to customers, employees, or others in public places. For example, an individual with autism may attempt to touch a stranger’s hair or clothing because they are attracted to something about those items. Or an individual with autism may ask personal questions of a complete stranger. Sometimes, these unusual social behaviors may be misinterpreted by others, or perceived as dangerous or threatening.

An individual with ASD may also be displaying unusual behaviors, and may not respond to questions or instructions (refer to Module 3, Module 4, and Module 5 for more information).


Law enforcement may be called for assistance with an individual with ASD who is displaying unsafe, aggressive or even sexual behaviors

People with ASD exhibit characteristic behaviors, some of which are potentially dangerous to themselves or others. For example, a child may bite or hit himself, or may attempt to bite, hit, or kick others, especially when told to stop engaging in an activity, told to leave an area, or denied access to something on which they are fixated. With good supports and educational programs, and through developmental maturity, these behaviors may lessen as a child grows up. However, some individuals with ASD will continue to display these behaviors into adulthood. When these behaviors are displayed by an adult with ASD, the chance for injury to the person with ASD, the officer, and others in the area is likely increased.

A person with autism’s age does not always reflect their level of maturity or their ability to understand the consequences of their actions. When considering a person with ASD’s ability to comprehend their situation and the effect their behavior might have on themselves or others, it is important to remember there is a distinction between chronological age and developmental age. This means that, although the individual is an adult, their maturity and intelligence are more like that of a young child. Therefore, efforts to redirect the individual to a safer place or to cease a given behavior should resemble what would be appropriate for a young child. Of course, it can be very difficult, even impossible, to determine a person’s developmental age during the line of duty. However, first responders should always be aware that a person’s age may not be a good indicator of their maturity and ability to follow directions.


A person’s developmental age is the best predictor of what they are capable of doing. For example, adults with ASD may live at home with parents or guardians, or may live in some type of supervised group home or facility. In other cases, they live independently or with assistance from an attendant or specialist that checks on them on a regular basis (daily or weekly). Some individuals with ASD may be employed. Most individuals with ASD are accompanied by parents, supervisors, or other caregivers when traveling in community settings for recreation, shopping, travel, and errands. Given this wide range of abilities and characteristics, it is possible to encounter an individual with ASD displaying behaviors that are unsafe, aggressive or disruptive in nearly any place, public or private.

Thus, there are multiple reasons why first responders may encounter a child or adult with ASD. Knowing a little about ASD, being able to recognize possible signs of ASD, and understanding techniques for responding in these situations will help officers and others be more effective in handling these situations. Unfortunately, there is no single strategy or technique that will be effective for every individual with ASD in every situation. Instead, it is best to remember the characteristics of ASD and have a few approaches in mind that might be helpful and that can be adapted as appropriate to fit the needs of a given situation.

In Modules 3 – 5, we describe common characteristics that may suggest an individual has ASD. In Modules 6 and 7, we describe how you should respond when you encounter someone who may have ASD, and practices to avoid, if possible.

Module 1 | Module 3