Autism Awareness for Criminal Justice Professionals: An Interview with Trish Ieraci

In 2015, The ARC’s National Center on Criminal Justice & Disability Report said that 35% of individuals with Autism have been the victim of a crime.

The increase in the population with Autism Spectrum Disorder, statistics as shocking as that from ARC, and the growing awareness of this population’s unique needs and challenges has created the impetus for justice professionals to hone their knowledge about this population and how they can react swiftly, safely and appropriately to a person living on the spectrum.

Join webinar host  Trish Ieraci to learn how first responders can recognize the signs that a person may be on the Autism spectrum, what the communicative, social and sensory needs are, how people with Autism may respond differently to anxiety and stressful situations, and how justice professionals can engage people with Autism (and their caregivers) while they are involved in the justice system.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Start off with telling us a little bit about PRAY, the organization you’re involved with.

Trish Ieraci: PRAY stands for Providing Relief for Autistic Youth. The gentleman who originally started the organization, him and his wife realized after their son was diagnosed the lack of information and lack of resources in the area. The organization started to be a hub of information for parents to turn to.

A friend of mine introduced me to the organization’s president around the time my son entered middle school and I learned about resource officers in his school. I started asking about the type of training the resource officers had for learning how to deal with special needs kids, and I couldn’t get an answer.

So then I started searching for organizations that did do training for law enforcement officers, and that’s when I learned about PRAY because that was an area they were looking to get involved with. At that point in time there was some training going on, but not as much as what there is going on and there is more focus becoming more aware of individuals with a cognitive different ability, not just Autism, but others as well (such as Downs Syndrome, bi-polar, Schizophrenia, etc).


JCH: What are some of the common misunderstandings justice professionals might have when they engage people with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Trish: That could encompass a lot. When you hear about a 15 year old who’s non-verbal/limited vocabulary who’s wandered away from home, what’s the first place you might think of where they would go? Most often people are going to think of places where they can play xBox or PS4 games.

The number one cause of death for those living on the spectrum is drowning. There’s a large population of individuals living under the spectrum, however, who are very attracted to water. No matter the time of the year, they’re still attracted to water. So they could be found trying to climb into a pool, a lake, a stream, a fountain, any body of water.

Some may be perceived as being disrespectful. Some of the individuals living under the spectrum have a difficult time making eye contact. We as “neuro-typicals” can give eye contact, listen to what others are saying, formulate an answer and give that answer – we don’t even think about, we just automatically do it.

For someone under the spectrum, asking them to multi-task – listening to a question, formulate and answer and answer – it’s not something that comes naturally to all of them.

JCH: You’ve mentioned that individuals on the spectrum can even be perceived as being on drugs. Why is that?

Trish:  If you have kids, think about when your kids were younger and when they threw a tantrum. When a neuro-typical child throws a tantrum, they’re doing it looking for an end-result: they want to watch cartoons for another 15 minutes, they want a cookie, they want to stay up for another half hour.

When somebody under the spectrum has a tantrum, or what we call a meltdown, they’re actually looking for something to stop: they’re looking for that scent to go away. They’re looking for that sound to stop, or that texture on their clothing to stop irritating them. They want something to end.


JCH: Even neuro-typical people find dealing with law enforcement or the justice system to be quite stressful. I can imagine though that for a person living on the spectrum, it must be that much more stressful for them?

Trish:  Yes. And then another big component that we have to take into consideration is that people living under the spectrum also have a tendency to be people-pleasers. So, if a police officer asks “did you go into that house and take that gun?” a person living on the spectrum may think “I guess they want me to say yes. So I’m going to say yes. If I say yes, then I’m going to please them. If I please them, they’re going to like me. If they like me then maybe they’ll want to be my friend.”

JCH: …and then end up admitting to something they didn’t do.

Trish: You got it.

JCH: So it sounds like what you’re saying is that when a law enforcement officer engages someone who is on the spectrum, they really have to rethink how they do everything?

Trish:  Right. Some of this population will self-stimulate, or “stim.” That means they’re going to do the toe walking or finger flicking, or hand flapping, or they’ll rock… something to sooth or re-calibrate themselves. Someone could look at them and wonder, “Why are they doing that? Are they high? Are they on something?” No.

Again they’re reacting to a situation that is aggravating them. Maybe it’s because they’re being asked too many questions by too many different people. Or someone is talking at them too quickly and they can’t process everything fast enough, or they can’t get that scent to go away, or the noise, or flashing lights… There are so many things that could set them off.

We as neuro-typicals have the ability to filter out the outside things. But for them, all these outside noises and stimuli are coming at them at the same time and at the same rate and it’s overwhelming.

JCH: How can a law enforcement officer begin to identify someone who might be on the spectrum?

Trish: In our training, I provide 15 different items. But just a couple of them include someone who is talking to themselves, or someone who is finger flicking. If you see someone who is rocking back and forth, or is toe-walking, these could be indicators that the person is neuro-atypical. But these are just a few things.

JCH: How should a law enforcement officer adapt what they do when they need to engage a person who might be on the spectrum? How do they approach the situation differently?

Trish: What you might want to do is look at the situation. If you have canines out, you may want to move the person away from the dogs. If there’s a crowd, you might want to move to a more quiet area. If there is a caregiver or parent with them, see if you can have them come along. And just because they are a parent or caregiver doesn’t mean they will always de-escalate the situation, sometimes the parent or caregiver can actually escalate the situation. So you have to be careful of that. Sometimes the person might have information on them: a card that says “I am Autistic. In case of emergency, please contact” and provides a number for the officer to call.

JCH: You’ve been doing this kind of training for seven years. Can you share some changes or improvements that agencies or officers have reported back to you that have happened as a result of taking your training?

Trish:  There was once a situation where there was a warrant out for a neuro-typical man. His girlfriend had teenage twins who were under the spectrum. So the police officers went to her house. She wasn’t sharing any information with the officer. So while one officer was talking with the mom, the other went to talk with one of the boys. The conversation started off hesitantly, but he eventually started opening up and sharing so much information that the police officers knew exactly where to go and arrested the wanted man. They recognized the Autistic individual based on the signs – mom wasn’t divulging much of anything – and they were able to talk with him, get information, and that information lead to an arrest.

Another situation: There’s something here in Maryland here called Project Lifesaver – it’s a GPS tracking system. There have been instances where the president of our organization has had to use it – she has teenage twins under the spectrum, and one is non-verbal and has a tendency to wander. They have had to call the police help them find him quickly.

JCH: And part of that is, of course, being able to engage the kid so he doesn’t panic all the more.

Trish: Right. Because again, think about it. Something we’ve all taught our kids is “stranger danger.” That equates to, even though you are a police officer, (to the person with Autism) “I don’t know you,” and in some cases they go run and hide. And this is especially dangerous with fire fighters. That even though the Autistic person might know the firefighter – that might be a neighbor (who is a fire fighter) coming into my house to help – think about all of that turnout gear that a fire fighter wears, will that Autistic child recognize their neighbor? No.

So one thing we sometimes do at meet and greets is have a fire fighter come and then have someone under the spectrum help put each piece of equipment on them so they can see how the fire fighter looks as each piece goes on, and they can now recognize “This is a firefighter. They’re safe to go to.”

JCH: So transitioning a little bit, can you share how this might also apply to the courtroom setting, whether it be a judge or the lawyers or even the court personnel?

Trish: This is really important. According to statistics, there are somewhere 3-5% of all attorneys in the United States who have some kind of education, background or experience in dealing with people living under the spectrum.

Every day the statistics When my son was diagnosed – he’s now 19 – when he was born it was one in 167 [were being diagnosed on the spectrum.] And they’re now projecting, 1 in 40-something will be diagnosed under the spectrum, so the numbers are going up every day. Now they’re walking to school, they’re getting part-time jobs. They’re out and about in the community with or without a caregiver. And there is a higher likelihood that they’ll be targeted. Neuro-typical individuals will capitalize on that “people-pleasing personality,” and lure them into illegal activities. …We don’t know what our loved ones might be witnesses to, become victims of, or lured into.

[With regard to courtroom situations,] Judges need to understand that these individuals may not give eye-contact, or what might appear to mumbling under their breath, when in actuality they’re talking to themselves, they’re trying to soothe themselves. Will judges or attorneys be able to read the situation and understand that we’ve questioned this individual, they’re becoming over-stimulated, and they need to take a break? Attorneys need to understand how to word questions – to not use really elongated questions – to use shorter, bullet point questions with people under the spectrum.

Be sure to give them (the Autistic person) time to formulate their answers. Understand, they might not have a response right away. They’re trying to process what you’ve said and are trying to formulate a response. And help the Autistic person understand that it’s ok to say “no” – that the person isn’t displeasing you (the attorney or judge) just because they said “no” to you.

One thing my son has taught me is that – you know the saying “think outside the box” – my son has taught me there is no box. [My advice to justice personnel would be] Think freely, don’t be too regimented or too narrowly. Working with these people will open you up to new ways of thinking or how to see things differently.


To watch “Autism Awareness for Justice Personnel” click here.



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