Video Reviews

From the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Autism and Law Enforcement, produced by Dennis Debbaudt and directed by Dave Legacy.

The video Autism and Law Enforcement provides a quick and engaging education in autism that can help increase safety for both officers and individuals with autism, as well as minimize the potential for litigation that could occur as a result of a misunderstanding. Interviews and vignettes involving people with autism concretely convey the reality of how challenging they can be to interact with and how vulnerable to crime and exploitation they are. Approximately 1 in every 250 children born will be affected by some form of autism, a developmental disability that usually appears before the age of 3. Each will have difficulty interacting socially and communicating, which will challenge police attempting to help them or investigate crimes.

The first challenge is recognizing that someone has autism. Only about 50 percent of people with autism speak, and they do so in non-conventional ways. In one segment of the video, a young woman speaks rapidly, stringing together her address and phone number as a result of rote memorization. People with autism typically lack social skills and an understanding of societal norms. Consequently, others may perceive them as belligerent. This is demonstrated in a segment with a young man who seems to mock an officer when he repeats back the officer¹s exact words and commands due to an associated behavior called echolalia.

The video also illustrates how open to suggestion autistic individuals can be when interviewed. Four young adults are questioned individually about Miranda and their understanding of its meaning. When asked if they would “waive their rights,” all four, with tentative smiles on their faces, raise their right or left hand to wave at the interviewer. This literal interpretation, as well as the desire to please others, can create confusion for investigators.

The segment on restraint and arrest highlights risks associated with physical control. People with autism typically lack the understanding that continued struggling may require officers to use a higher level of force to restrain them. Lights and sirens can create too much sensory input, causing even greater problems with communication and control. Approximately 40 percent of people with autism have seizures, which stress can trigger. Additionally, they may have underdeveloped trunk muscles making them unable to support their airways, which creates a high potential for positional asphyxia.

The 21-minute video has a break to accommodate viewing at two roll calls. It provides an accurate start in broadening the understanding of autism, which can only serve to increase officers’ safety and that of people with autism. After viewing this video, officers will be better equipped to consider autism when assessing behavior during personal encounters. Officers who take the initiative to become acquainted with the people in their communities who have autism will be even more prepared. The video’s producer has an adult son with autism and is a committed advocate for people with autism and a friend of law enforcement. His realistic expectations, belief in police officers’ skills and well-meaning intentions, and interest in the safety of officers and people with autism come through with sincerity.

Reviewed by Mary Otto Oregon Police Corps Boring, Oregon

Autism and Law Enforcement, produced by Dennis Debbaudt and directed by Dave Legacy.

Chief executives in the 21st century face incredible challenges meeting training needs of their respective agencies. Since September 11, 2001, federal, state, and local training mandates have warranted tremendous attention for chief executives. Nonetheless, meeting the seemingly endless needs of other in-service training issues cannot be ignored. Short duration videos viewed at roll calls represent one avenue law enforcement agencies can consider to meet training requirements. This type of media provides officers with the latest techniques and information on any number of subjects that do not necessarily require a hands-on approach.

My review of Autism and Law Enforcement, a 21-minute video, not only enlightened me as a police chief but made me immediately recognize it as a valuable resource for all law enforcement officers. The producer, a law enforcement veteran and father of a son with autism, maintains viewer interest by providing clear, concise bullet points about the nature of the disability; how officers should approach an individual with autism; and what to expect as a response from an officer’s field interview.

After viewing the tape, I immediately recognized the importance of familiarizing officers with this particular disability. A startling statistic especially caught my attention: a greater likelihood exists for encountering a person with autism in an officer’s daily assignments than that of many other forms of disability. Failure on the part of the officer to recognize the inherent characteristics of this particular disability may result in an inappropriate response or, worse, an unnecessary arrest or excessive use of force.

The medical profession continues its efforts to identify the cause of autism. In the meantime, however, research had indicated that it is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States, affecting 15 out of 10,000 people. It is four times more common in boys than in girls, and children are diagnosed within the first 3 years of life.

Because people with autism have a propensity to wander and sometimes do not respond to questions, they can be misjudged and viewed as suspicious in nature. Consequently, officers often fail to recognize some of the behavioral traits of an individual with autism when responding to calls for service. The sensory overload that the person experiences often is intensified by the officer’s command presence, shiny badge, radio, and firearm. The officer’s mere presence in an interview scenario may result in the person responding in a manner that is unfamiliar to the officer. The video provides invaluable lessons on how to identify, interview, and successfully resolve an encounter with such an individual.

Autism and Law Enforcement is an excellent tool that can raise awareness to promote successful encounters with people who have autism. The complexities in the mission of today’s street officer demand an astute response to the differing needs of citizens. This training video helps accomplish that goal.

Reviewed by John M. Skinner Chief, Port St. Lucie, Florida, Police Department

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