Teaching police departments about autism

According to KPIX CBS 5 in the Bay Area, the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department has made it mandatory for all 1,000+ officers on the force to attend an autism workshop as part a 3-day crisis intervention training program.

Sheriff's deputy Matthew Clark says officers' chances of encountering someone with autism are greater than ever.

"Ten years ago, where one in 65 births were somewhere on the spectrum, now it's one in 50," Clark said.

According to the Autism Society, one in five young people on the autism spectrum will have some kind of contact with police before they turn 21.


Deputy Rick Chaeff says the training prepares him to recognize and react to unpredictable behavior.

"Just because someone's behaving a certain way doesn't necessarily mean they're under the influence, that they want to fight you or anything like that," Chaeff said.

People often call 911 when a family member is undergoing a mental health crisis. This typically means that under-trained police are brought in to respond—and unfortunately, their solutions tend to involve lethal force. In fact, half of people killed by police in the United States have a disability of some kind, which includes autism (the numbers of people with disabilities who are executed in the penal system are even more harrowing).

That being said: based on the current research, it's unclear if such mandatory training has an impact on police violence against people with disabilities. Political scientist and public policy expert John J. Pitney, Jr—through whom I found many of these links—discusses the issue more in-depth in his book, The Politics of Autism: Navigating The Contested Spectrum:

Autistic people may have poor eye contact or engage in repetitive behaviors, which may strike police officers as suspicious. They also might be slow to react to police commands, which can cause a routine stop to spin out of control. In Greenville, South Carolina, one news account tells of an autistic man named Tario Anderson: "Officers said they saw Anderson walking on the sidewalk and tried him to question him. They said when they put a spotlight on Anderson, he put his hands in his pockets, started walking the other way and eventually started running from them. He was shocked with a Taser and arrested because he didn't follow the officers' commands." Anderson is also African American, which adds another dimension to the story. In the wake of incidents in which African Americans had died at the hands of white police officers, one father wrote of his autistic son: "What if my son pulling back from a cop is seen as an act of aggression? What if a simple repetitive motion is mistaken for an attempt at physical confrontation? If a cop is yelling at my son and he doesn't respond because he doesn't understand, what's stopping the cop from murdering my boy in cold blood?

Autism Workshop Helps South Bay Sheriff's Deputies De-Escalate Crisis Encounters [Sharon Chin / KPIX CBS 5]

Half of People Killed by Police Have a Disability: Report [Marti Hause and Ari Melber / NBC News]

Image: Nick Allen/Flickr (CC 2.0)