Emily Iland is the mother of her 30-year-old autistic son, who has grown into an independent and productive member of society. He lives on his own, holds a college degree, and works as an accountant. Before he was independent though, his mother spent many years advocating on his behalf. Now that her son is independent she is pushing to train autistic students, young adults, and adults alike on how to appropriately react to being stopped by a police officer.
People on the spectrum are actually seven times more likely than someone not on the spectrum to be involved with law officers as a victim, witness, or offender. In these interactions, autistics may act inappropriately, misread social cues, or become overwhelmed in a stressful situation.
Since 2007, Illand has been trying to train Los Angeles Police Department officers on how to recognize and interact with people who are on the spectrum. However, as much training as she would give the LAPD there was only so much they could do. “The police told me something,” she says, “If someone runs, you have to chase them. If someone puts their hand in their waistband, they have to assume they are reaching for a weapon. Even if they know that the person has autism, they have to respond to what they see.” This feedback made her realize the importance of training those on the spectrum, the appropriate skills to deal with law enforcement scenarios.
As part of her “Be Safe” campaign, Iland gives a few simple tips; don’t reach into your pocket, stay calm, show them your hands, if you are handcuffed or put into a patrol car try to be quiet, patient, and still, and if you are arrested make sure to tell the officers you have a disability and would like to speak to a lawyer. The “Be Safe” campaign included a DVD that features young people with autism role-playing police encounters, as well as a guidebook for parents, teachers, and counselors.
The video is based on real life cases where autistic individuals were misunderstood by law enforcement because they didn’t react with the appropriate social response, thus putting themselves in unnecessarily dangerous situations with the law. One mother, after watching the video, said about her autistic son who just got his license, “I worry about him all the time. He needs to know what to expect and how his actions are being perceived by police officers. He needs to know not to run, not to panic. I need to be able to trust his to let the officers do their job.”
Ever year, approximately 50,000 teenagers on the autism spectrum enter into adulthood and more recently because of expanding therapeutic services and programs, are able to enter the workforce, get a driver’s license, and be a part of mainstream society. It will be increasingly important for young adults, especially, who are on the spectrum, to have the appropriate skills to allow them to be safe and stay safe.
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