sign that says police

The World of Police Encounters: How to Prepare a Disabled Family Member

The traditional motto of a police department is “protect and serve.” For many people, however, the word “police” evokes quite opposite feelings. Traditional police training took few steps to prevent biased and rough treatment of certain populations—a concern which often causes particular dread for parents of young adults.

Neurodiversity and “Suspicious” Behavior

Race, dress, age, and gender are all known to affect police judgment of who “looks suspicious.” So are invisible disabilities such as autism. People on the autism spectrum are seven times more likely than their neurotypical counterparts to be confronted by police, because common autism symptoms include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Pacing
  • Being easily upset by “minor” annoyances

… any of which can look suspicious to the average neurotypical person, and may even be cited in police training as behavior to watch out for.

Plus, in tense situations, typical autistic behavior can include:

  • Reacting badly to flashing lights and loud noises (as might come from a police car)
  • Difficulty comprehending verbal instructions
  • Difficulty speaking clearly
  • Trying to move away
  • Jumping or recoiling if touched

Many tragic stories begin with an officer’s assumption that someone is being deliberately evasive or uncooperative.

female police officer speaking to teen boy

Tips for Handling Police Encounters

If you have a young-adult child with autism or another neurodivergent condition, help them understand what to do—and not do—if approached by an officer.

  • Breathe deeply and stay calm.
  • Avoid any sudden moves.
  • Keep hands visible at all times. If you need to take something from a pocket, ask permission first.
  • If nonverbal, know how to indicate this in a nonthreatening manner (pointing to mouth and shaking head slightly is understood by most).
  • Aside from disclosing disabilities, don’t volunteer more information than asked for.
  • If at all unsure what’s being asked, say so. Answering without understanding could mean “confessing” to something you didn’t do.  

The “Fire Drill” Principle

No matter how well the above rules are memorized, don’t rely on “head knowledge” alone. Theoretical “knowing” is easily displaced by panic in a real-life emergency—unless reinforced by ongoing physical practice. It’s vital to ensure that the instinctive reaction will be the right reaction, which is why schools hold fire drills rather than simply explaining what to do in case of fire.

Exactly how you design a police-encounter drill will depend on your own child’s personality and learning style. If at all possible, get help from an actual police officer or someone else experienced in dealing with real-life emergencies. Thankfully, police departments these days are better at training officers to recognize neurodiverse conditions and to cope with mental health crises: check what your municipality offers in “crisis intervention” programs.

Important points to remember:

  • Approach the possibility of a police encounter as you would any emergency preparation: with neither anxiety nor denial, but with sound, proactive knowledge.
  • Involve your whole family in preparation and practice. If you or another household member is present during a police encounter, it’s important that you know how to identify yourself and how to explain your child’s needs if they can’t.
  • Don’t make every practice identical or strictly “according to schedule.” Especially when someone has autism, it’s vital to include practice at managing surprise and staying appropriately flexible.
  • Make practice an ongoing thing. “Mastered” skills get rusty quicker than you think.
  • Always remember the goal of helping your child become as independent as possible. Your role isn’t just to protect them, but to nurture their own self-protection and autonomy skills—including, whenever possible, speaking for themselves in response to authority figures.

(To get additional tips for both parents and children, see “How to Interact with Police” from Pathfinders for Autism.)

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