Law Enforcement and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Written By Marlena Smith & Jill Teagardin

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are characterized by deficits in communication and social interaction, as well as the presence of repetitive and stereotyped behavior. These core features are likely to impact interactions between persons with ASD and others, including law enforcement officers. If police officers are unfamiliar with ASD, they may misinterpret such behaviors as suspicious, noncompliant, or threatening. Furthermore, such misinterpretations may in some cases result in unnecessary injury or fatality. For this reason, CARD researchers Jill Teagardin, Dr. Dennis Dixon, Marlena Smith, and Dr. Doreen Granpeesheh are conducting a study to train police officers to identify and properly respond to persons with ASD.

Participants will include approximately 80 police officers from the Ventura County Law Enforcement Department. The participants will be randomly assigned to one of two groups: experimental or control. Due to the important content of the training, both groups will receive intervention; however, the control group will receive training following a slight delay. The participants’ knowledge of ASD will be evaluated via a questionnaire completed both prior to and following training.

The participants will receive training on ASD as part of their regular training sessions. Training will consist of the participants viewing a 13 minute long educational video created specifically for police officers. The video covers topics including how to recognize, communicate with, and safely respond to persons with ASD.

With the increased rate of ASD diagnoses, interactions between persons with ASD and law enforcement are likely to increase as well. Furthermore, the recent prevalence of media coverage reporting unsuccessful interactions between law enforcement officers and persons with ASD suggests a need for police training. Despite this, research exploring practical and effective procedures to teach police officers about ASD is notably lacking. Thus in this study, CARD sets out to evaluate one method of police training on the topic of ASD.

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