With autism on the rise in this country, unacceptable clashes between police officers and autistic people indicate that there is a serious need for better education of our nation’s police forces about the differences people with autism present. Autism is a general term for a complex neurobiological condition characterized by non-typical brain development. There is a wide spectrum of characteristics and functioning levels that can qualify as autism, but generally, autistic people can find verbal and/or nonverbal communication challenging and frequently struggle with making eye contact or intuiting what the social expectations are in a given situation. Thus, not surprisingly, autistic people sometimes do not respond to the police in the expected fashion, which can yield tragic results.
One such example involved a 16 year old autistic boy in Chicago, Oscar Guzman. Oscar was sitting outside his family’s restaurant watching the pigeons when two police officers approached him. Feeling uncomfortable, Oscar put his head down and walked rapidly back inside his family’s restaurant. The officers found that behavior suspicious and followed Oscar. Oscar then began to run and tried to hide in the employees’ only area of the restaurant. Oscar’s parents attempted to intervene, telling the police officers that Oscar was a special needs child, but the officers shoved the parents aside, forced their way in, and began violently beating and clubbing Oscar. Oscar repeatedly told the officers not to hit him because he was a “special boy,” to no avail. Make no mistake, this outrageous violence against a young teen would be absolutely wrong regardless; but it is especially troubling because the only trigger appeared to be the boy’s failure to accede to cultural norms and expectations due to his autism.
Loevy & Loevy represented Oscar in securing a half million dollar settlement against the City for this inexcusable and illegal violence, but the underlying problem – the police’s failure to recognize and respect the differences in how autistic people respond to them – persists. In fact, just last week, another autistic teen filed suit similarly claiming that when he avoided eye contact with New York police officers, he was thrown to the ground, punched in the face, arrested, questioned and then released with no charges. Again, this violent response by the police is illegal no matter what; but this incident also shows a profound lack of understanding about the differences in how autistic people sometimes interact.
And it’s not just the lack of eye contact that can escalate encounters between autistic people and the police. Some autistic people are extremely sensitive to touch. An officer suddenly grabbing them can cause a panicked, fight-or-flight reaction, dramatically escalating a situation. Also, some autistic people have a slower processing speed – there is a delay between when they hear an instruction and when they are able to formulate a response. That, too, is a frightening prospect in a world where failing to instantly obey a police order sometimes leads to beating, tasing, or shooting. There can also be a failure on an autistic person’s part to recognize a police officer as such or to understand the officer’s authority. And once suspected of a crime, autistic people can exhibit the quintessential “tells” of a guilty person when being questioned – lack of eye contact, shiftiness, failure to answer questions, signs of panic, etc. – not because they are necessarily guilty of anything, but because these may be their norms in a stressful, unfamiliar situation.
Quite plainly, better understanding is needed. Police forces need to provide education and guidelines for officers’ communications and interactions with people with autism. And on a more basic level, police forces need to respond with more empathy and less violence when interacting with anyone: there is no excuse for the police to be beating up anyone, autistic or not, cooperative or not, suspect or not. But autism, in particular, should not be a trigger for police violence. According to national data from 2014, 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. As these children grow up, this problem is going to get worse unless there is a meaningful effort to educate and train our country’s police forces.