The Importance of Law Enforcement Sensitivity Training

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Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Scott Center

Police officers encounter a multitude of individuals in emergency situations every day. Just as each emergency differs from the next, so does the individual involved, especially in regard to people with autism. Police are trained to respond to a crisis situation with a certain protocol, but this protocol may not always be the best way to interact with people with autism. Because police are usually the first to respond to an emergency, it is critical that these officers have a working knowledge of autism, and the wide variety of behaviors people with autism can exhibit in emergency situations.

Teaching first responders the signs of autism is an important first step toward preventing unfortunate situations. In order to achieve greater sensitivity to those with autism, The Scott Center for Autism Treatment has developed online training which offers law enforcement some guidelines for interacting with individuals with ASD in the community and emergency settings, in an effort to reduce the possibility of misunderstanding or escalation when real situations arise. If a first responder is able to identify that a child or adult may have autism, he or she can then respond in a way that best supports the individual.

A child or adult has wandered away from parent or caregiver, home or school. The person may also wander into traffic, railways or attempt to enter nearby homes or dwellings. Parent or caregiver actions are misinterpreted or appear as assault. When a person displays unusual behavior in a community setting where they are not known, these behaviors may be interpreted by others as suspicious, threatening, criminal in nature, or as someone high on drugs or other substances. Rearranging or making order out of store displays or products may appear as shoplifting. When a person displays escalated behavior in the community, at school, or at home, unaware of the person’s autism, citizens will call 911.

Officers should understand that an individual with autism:

  • May inappropriately approach or run towards officers.

  • In emergencies, may flail against medical procedures; may attempt to re-enter dangerous environment (i.e., a burning home, flee into traffic, or touch a downed power line).

  • May be non-verbal.

  • Can become upset with changes in routine for apparently trivial reasons.

  • May not recognize your uniform or marked vehicle, or understand what is expected of them if they do.

  • May not understand your verbal commands or use of slang expressions.

  • May not understand your command presence, body language, and non-verbal communications, such as rolling of eyes, raising of eyebrows, shrugs, or hand signals.

  • May be attracted to shiny objects and actually reach for your badge, radio, keys, belt buckle, or weapon.

  • May display repetitive, self-stimulation behaviors, such as twirling an object or themselves, finger or hand flicking, body rocking, pacing, or talking to themselves.

  • May run or move away when approached by officer or any stranger; sensory overload.

  • May flee from lights, sirens, canine partners, aromas or even a light, comforting touch.


Be alert to sensory overload. Your sirens and lights may cause further anxiety and increase a negative reaction from the child or adult who has autism. Be aware that your attempts to stop these behaviors may result in the person’s escalated, self-protective actions, such as a “fight or flight” reaction.

For a limited time, officers can take a free, online autism sensitivity training course offered by The Scott Center of Autism at:

This information is available from , and  If you any questions or would like to take our Law Enforcement Sensitivity Training or provide training to your agency, contact The Scott Center for Autism Treatment for information about our ONLINE TRAINING at