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  • Writer's pictureChris Wingate

Who should respond when autistic people are in distress?

In October, I wrote about autism and the police, and I wrote the following:

...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.

But, with a few months between then and now and some more research under my belt, I feel comfortable saying that, at least when autistic people are in distress, the police should not respond. Instead, I think we should seek to have dedicated mental health units respond in these situations.

The police have many important functions, and there should still be efforts between the autistic community and police to establish cordial relations. But policing as an institution simply does not seem equipped to handle certain situations, such as when autistic people are having bad reactions or meltdowns.

A recent example profiled in the Associated Press is particularly egregious: in 2019, an eleven-year-old boy with autism was arrested, handcuffed, and charged with several misdemeanors after poking another student with a pencil. The boy had been poked by a classmate with a marker and had a negative sensory reaction, but was being calmed down by his school's psychologist when police intervened and arrested him. The boy was traumatized by the experience, and lawsuits are ongoing.

Like I said in my original post, too, a Google search for "autism and police" reveals both situations of this sort and advice for avoiding situations of this sort. I mentioned there how a thirteen-year-old autistic boy was shot and killed by police in Utah. This is definitely not an uncommon or even unlikely experience.

So, what might be a good alternative to having police respond in situations like these ones? We actually don't have to look very far for alternatives! Over the summer, the City of Denver established the STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) program, in which mental health professionals are dispatched to respond to "low-level" and nonviolent situations that require intervention. The program has been a massive success: despite responding to nearly 750 incidents--an average of six a day--not a single one required police, led to arrests, or caused someone to be sentenced to jail time.

Something like this seems like an extremely optimal solution to me. There are no shortage of autism professionals in the world, and situations like autistic meltdowns almost never escalate to a point where police are the best option. In future blog posts, I hope to explore these alternatives in more detail, and perhaps explain how interactions might take place if these alternatives were implemented.


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