Webinar presenter Dr. Wes Dotson answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Case Studies in Law Enforcement Encounters with Individuals on the Autism Spectrum. Here are just a few of his responses.
Audience Question: When a parent knows that their child has autism but everything that they’re doing isn’t working and the child has continued to act out sometimes they call the police, what resources or suggestions can you provide to us as police officers to help that parent?
Dr. Wes Dotson: That’s a great question. Parents are often at the end of their rope when they reach the point when they’re having to call the police for their child’s behavior. If you’re in the West Texas area, we maintain a resource list of psychiatrists, psychologist behavior clinics. There are a couple of National Organizations who provide resources to help families access services. One of those is the Autism Society of America. They maintain a national database of providers in their area. Another is Autism Speaks. They have a tremendous amount of free resources for families. They have even an area where you can search for local resources. So I often send people to the Autism Society of America and Autism Speaks. I also encourage police officers to be familiar with their local DD Counsel and DD Agency through their State because often there are Emergency Respite Resources that families can take advantage of for free if they know they can call. But a lot of that is very regional in different parts of the country on how it’s accessed. So I would strongly encourage you to reach out if you have a University nearby for example that has an Autism or Disability Center. They’re often able to point you to the direction of a lot of local resources and can help families, or help people working with families to get access to those services.
Audience Question: What role does a dispatcher play in raising awareness of the situation that may involve an autistic individual?
Dr. Wes Dotson: What an outstanding question. One of my professional goals in life is to figure out a way for “Dispatcher Specific Training on Autism”. Because we know that the information conveyed to officers on their way to a scene often plays a big part in determining how they respond in the initial seconds. So, as dispatcher you know that someone with autism might be on scene, that’s really an important detail to share with the officers. Past that, it will be familiarizing yourself with those tips. So say; “Hey, I’m dispatching you to a home. There’s a young man with autism who’s upset. Approach without lights. Approach without sirens.” Be prepping those officers on the way in; “Hey, remember we want to simplify the environment. So if we know we’re going in with someone who has autism let’s not all bomb four of us through the door and surround him immediately. Let’s be sure that we’re reminding ourselves of the difficulty of verbal communication.” So you can be as a dispatcher; “Hey, there’s someone with autism in the home. Remember.” Some of the tips, especially on my Tips Sheet, that’s meant to be a straight down, proactive: “Remember this. Do this. Do this. Avoid that or they’re not going to do that.” We encourage people here in Lovick, and it’s available in other communities that I’m aware of, to actually register their home with dispatch. We tell our families if you got a teenager or young adult with autism in your home, call your local police station, your fire station and flag your address in their system so when the call comes in, the address flags as having someone with autism in the home. I think that’s a great preventative strategy and one that also means that the families interacting with the very people who might respond and so building rapport and knowing the dispatchers, knowing the police officers who might respond.
Aaron (host): Amanda from the audience shared: As an example of being literal, my son is on the autism spectrum. He was being bullied by a child who told him, “If you don’t shut your mouth, I’ll poke your eyes to shut your mouth”. And when her son told her about the incident, he was more focused in trying to figure how the child would poke his eyes to shut his mouth because his eyes has nothing to do with his mouth.
Audience Question: In Fresno, the mom and sister actually called 911 for EMT, not police. They both report trying to communicate with the officer but were ignored. As supervisors, how can we make sure officers adapt to the situation and don’t just revert to training?
Dr. Wes Dotson: That’s a great question. I really appreciate the additional details. That is a new enough story that I was having to work from the few articles that I could find online. That actually they called for EMS doesn’t surprise me but I did not know that, so thank you. I think as a supervisor the big thing, and when I’m training the mission in my behavioral clinic is that, protocol exists for a reason but so does judgment. So we have to know and follow protocol but we also have to be confident that if we recognize something isn’t working, for example, if we recognize; “Hey, what I’m saying doesn’t appear to be registering” or “Hey, this guy covers his ears and rocks every time I speak above a whisper”. Am I willing to adapt in that moment to say; “Hey, maybe it will make the situation a little easier if I respond to that” instead of a rigid “This is my protocol if I can’t control the hands he goes in the cuffs”. Thinking about that first scenario when I watched that was posted online and the very first thing I thought was; “If I didn’t know that young man I would have been concerned as well.” Because we got a six-foot-tall young man who is not communicating clearly and he’s moving his body in big ways, of course, you want to create a safe environment. What I train folks to do is you don’t always have to create a safe environment through restraint and constraint. Sometimes you can create a safe environment by removing everybody else. Or by providing an open area in which if the person continues that behavior is not as risky as if they’re doing it in the middle of the road or something. So I think part of what contributed, and again, Monday morning quarter-backing with limited information: they were in a restroom, which is a very constrained environment, in a public place with an audience, and four or five people talking to them while they were trying to make those decisions. Could they have created a simpler environment? Back more people away, get it more quiet, give that kid more space and that would have bought them more time to make a better protocol-driven decision.
Audience Question: If a person is exhibiting common traits of autism is there anything wrong with just asking that person if they have autism?
Dr. Wes Dotson: You get into some issues around that. What I would typically say is that; “Most of the time if they’re overwhelmed or in a sensory situation they wouldn’t be able to answer you anyway. A lot of our young adults on the spectrum don’t like to disclose if they don’t have to and that can be something that kind of upsets them. The tips that I gave you for interaction about being very precise in your language, being literal, clear expectations, time to process. The beauty of those is every one of those tips would work for anybody. This is compatible, compassionate responding whether you’re working with someone who’s drunk or impaired or on the autism spectrum or has an intellectual disability. Giving them time to process, creating a safe environment using your language carefully and talking less, that’s almost universal as a de-escalation strategy. You can ask. You may not get an answer. What I would say is; “If you’re thinking that already there is no harm in providing some of those let’s give some space and sometime accommodations whether you get a firm answer or not.”
Audience Question: How would an officer know when someone is going into their pocket or backpack for their card, that they’re not going for a weapon?
Dr. Wes Dotson: You can’t. The double edge sword of these that we work with on the side of training the community to share those cards with you is: if they’re verbal, or college student or a young adult like the young man in the traffic stop we try to tell them either you hand that officer that card when you hand them your driver’s license. In other words, you don’t hand them the card until they’ve already asked for you to give them your license. So the officers are expecting you to go for your pocket to get your wallet to get your license. Or to disclose that verbally. To try to say something like; “I need to give you a card. Look at my card.” If the person is non-verbal, what we tell our families to do and the individuals to do is to have that in a visible place. Wear a bracelet, for some of our kids we will have them laced it in with their shoelace, have it on a necklace where even if they’re non-verbal, even if they’re kind of escalated they can show you a bracelet or you can see on their foot or you can see around their neck that they got something that indicates autism. Really, there is not a lot I can tell an officer there. That’s a training issue on my side, training families and individuals to say; “Okay, if you’re interacting with a police officer and you need to show them that you have this card.” It’s on us to be practicing with that person on how to do it safely. If they’re non-verbal, what we recommend is that it be visible. That there be a bracelet you can see whether they’re talking to you or not. A shoelace or something like that. If they’re verbal, to deliver it when you already asked them to deliver it. Or to say; “I have a card. I have autism. Can I give you this card.” Or something like that.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of Case Studies in Law Enforcement Encounters with Individuals on the Autism Spectrum.