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  • Writer's pictureChris Wingate

Autism and the police

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Recently, I came across this video from the Miami Police Department, showing off their "Autism Awareness Vehicle", and it got me thinking a bit.

The relationship between police and autism is something we don't talk about very much, but it's a very important relationship. Police officers--whatever you may think of them--are sworn to protect the communities they serve, and many people in these communities are people with autism. And yet, even in this relatively innocuous case, it seems that autistic people were not consulted. The vehicle itself is pretty garish, and while it doesn't overstimulate me personally, I'm almost certain it does overstimulate other autistic people.

This, I think, is symptomatic of a broader and more serious problem. Very often police have no experience of any kind with responding to autistic people (or people with disabilities or mental illness generally), leading to very bad outcomes for both parties. You need only google "autism and police" to find both countless resources for police on how to respond to situations involving autistic people and stories of how their lack of experience can lead to serious injury or even turn fatal.

In the process of writing this blog, in fact, an autistic thirteen-year-old in Utah was shot by police during a wellness check.

So, what can be done here? I'm certainly not a policy expert, and I won't pretend I have solid answers--but I think it's obvious that police departments need to work with local autism groups, and disability groups in general, as many of them currently don't do so. Police, if they are going to represent people with autism, disabilities, mental illnesses, etc. need to be trusted by those communities and know how to respond in situations. Working with those groups to find amicable solutions is basically a necessity, and special training for police to respond to such situations seems desirable (although its practicality I am unsure of for a few reasons).

Alternatively, a solution may be to simply not involve police at all in such situations, instead delegating that role to social workers. Recently, the city of Denver has experimented with a program like this for similar situations and seen incredible success in doing so. I see no reason why such a program couldn't work elsewhere in this state or in the United States generally if implemented correctly.

Regardless, this is not a topic I expect will go away in the near future, particularly not with the ongoing debate around police brutality and the role of police generally in our society. It is important, then, that people with autism, disabilities, and mental illnesses weigh in on that conversation, because we are also affected by how police currently do their jobs--often negatively.


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