By Dennis Debbaudt
The information below is taken from information developed since 1991, from 2001 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin article (on-line at the Home Page), presented in greater depth at train-the-trainer workshops, and as found in Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Dennis Debbaudt, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London-Philadelphia, 2002. (To order, see Books & Media Section C of this site).
- What Families Can Do To Lessen Police Interactions
- Information for Persons with Autism
- Information for Law Enforcement Officers
- Police Training Sessions
Elopement & Runners: 'situations when and persons who are prone to escape from caregivers into the community'
A major cause for concern for parents and care providers are children and adults who are prone to escape whenever briefly left unattended or when care providers are otherwise occupied. They may run into oncoming traffic, into a neighbor's home, into unlocked vehicles, peer into a neighbor's home windows, or obsessively turn on water spigots. Tragically, these so-called runners are often attracted to water sources such as pools, ponds, and lakes. Without a fear of real danger and in spite of not knowing how to swim, they jump in.
Elopement can occur anywhere with anyone. The first time is often the worst time.
If you or a person you care about are living with a person with elopement issues there are some measures you can take. Contact law enforcement, fire and ambulance agencies. Provide information that includes:
The above informational handout should be also be copied and kept available at home, in your car, and given to trusted neighbors or others in the event that you, the parent or care provider, suddenly becomes incapacitated or are unable to communicate. The handout will also come in handy if you are in an area other than your neighborhood and are approached by the police.
Ask your local law enforcement or 911 agency to "red flag" this information in their 911 computers. Police departments keep records (usually computerized) of individual "runs" to locations in their community. This allows them to know what brought them to a particular location in the past and prepare in case they are called again. We cannot expect officers to perform field diagnosis of autism, but if we provide them information before an incident occurs, we can expect better responses.
Alert your neighbors
While we may not personally know every family in the neighborhood, through our daily observations, we know many personal facts about them. General physical appearance, vehicles, clothes, work schedules, favorite sports teams, what pizza they enjoy, and many other facts become our common knowledge about our neighbors. So, too, they know our behaviors and those of our loved ones.
The behaviors and characteristics of autism when displayed by children and adults in their neighborhood have the potential to attract attention from the public. Law enforcement professionals suggest that you reach out and get to know your neighbors. Decide what information to present to neighbors beforehand. A brief visit, introducing the family member and giving them a simple handout containing the name, address, and phone number, may be a good way to avoid problems down the road. It also gives a feel for what kind of person the neighbor may be.
This approach will allow your neighbors who observe behaviors to understand the reason for them, know that you are approachable, and give them the opportunity to call you before they call the police. It may also lead to better social interactions for people with autism in your neighborhood.
If elopement is persistent, consider contacting a professional locksmith, security company or home improvement professional.
Feedback from law enforcement professionals indicates a need for people with autism, their families and caregivers to be proactive in providing information to the police.
Persons with autism who are able to navigate the community without assistance should definitely consider developing a personal handout for the police. Remember that the initial uninformed contact with police presents the highest potential for a negative outcome.
Some suggestions to consider during sudden interactions with police:
Everyone should take precautions to avoid becoming victims of criminal activity. Unfortunately, persons with autism may need to take extra precautions. In order to avoid detection, arrest, and prosecution, criminally bent individuals become skilled at picking out easy victims. Robbers and con artists will notice unusual behavior when they select their next victim. An unarmed robber or con artist will operate in public places, anywhere regular pedestrian traffic or large public gatherings occur will afford a criminal the chance to identify or mark victims. If you are threatened/asked to give up money or valuables, do not resist. Give them what they want. These things can be replaced. Once in a safe area, call the police.
To avoid victimization from street crimes or abusers:
Persons with autism should contact their local advocacy organization and become involved in ongoing law enforcement training sessions. If the organization has not yet addressed these issues, for the best protection of everyone in the community, suggest that they do so immediately
The rate of occurrence of autism has increased in the past ten years from 2 to 6 in ten thousand persons, to 2-6 in one thousand persons. Persons with autism and other developmental disabilities are estimated to have up to seven times more contacts with law enforcement agencies during their lifetimes (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services News In Print, Winter, 1993). You can expect to have an increasing number of interactions with them. Interacting with a child or adult who has an autism spectrum disorder will challenge your experience and training.
People with autism are as different from each other as we all are. Persons with autism will present the behaviors and characteristics described at this website and elsewhere in different combinations and degrees. Each person will have a different level of independence as well. Some persons with autism will have a caregiver with them at all times. Others will live semi or fully independent lives. You will hear terms such as low functioning autism, high functioning autism, and Asperger's syndrome to describe the condition. In most cases, the person will have difficulties, following verbal commands, reading your body language, and have deficits in social understanding
You will meet people with autism anywhere in the community, but be prepared to respond to children and adults who will wander away, very much like some Alzheimer's patients. Other common responses will be to persons who are in a neighborhood or location where they are unknown to others and display unusual behaviors, at retail settings, and at schools.
Law enforcement agencies can proactively train their sworn workforce, especially trainers, patrol supervisors, and school resource officers, to recognize the behavioral symptoms and characteristics of a child or adult who has autism, and learn basic response techniques.
A training program should be designed to allow officers to better protect and serve the public (and go home safe to your families), make the best use of your valuable time, and avoid mistakes that can lead to lawsuits and their negative trappings-media scrutiny, loss of confidence from the community, morale problems, and lifelong trauma for all involved. A good autism recognition and response workshop is designed to inform law enforcement professionals about the risks associated with autism, and will offer suggestions and options about how to address those risks.
Included in those risks are:
In any case in which a person is found to have autism and is taken into custody, it is critical for the first responder to follow procedure and document that he or she has learned that the person has autism.
If in custody, persons with autism may be at risk if housed with the general prison population. Ask jail authorities to segregate persons with autism from the general prison population and seek counsel from the prosecuting attorney and an evaluation from a qualified health professional.
Please review the information in Section A of this WWW site.
Autism presentations to law enforcement agencies can help advocates establish a network of community contacts that can be useful in the future. Stay available as an autism resource to the law enforcement community. Your assistance will not be forgotten.
Understanding and education are the keys to avoiding unfortunate situations. Public understanding of the unique behaviors, associated vulnerabilities, and issues of concern to individuals and families affected by autism will continue to be our most effective weapon against misunderstandings and unfortunate incidents. We must also empower our loved ones with autism by teaching them to understand the legal system to their fullest capabilities, and to respond as appropriately as they are able when encountering law enforcement officials.
I hope you found the brief information in this section useful. I suggest that readers obtain a copy of my book Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals for a more thorough and complete look at these issues of concern for us all.
I now use a variety of training materials and tools within my autism recognition, response and risk management workshops for law enforcement agencies and other audiences.
To schedule a law enforcement or school resource workshop, call 772-398-9756 or contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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