Jun 17, 2014 4 Share

Well-Informed is Well-Armed: Easing Police Response to Domestic Incidents

LIghts on police car.

First published August 31, 2012

Imagine yourself to be a rookie cop, two years “on the road,” patrolling an average-sized town in America. It is 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday night shift and you just finished your second cup of coffee. You are a “Type A” personality. You are assertive, ambitious, and eager to prove your mettle to your peers, your supervisors ... yourself.  

Your Police Academy instructors have drilled it into your head that priority Number One of any encounter is to gain control. You have also been taught that those who hesitate often don’t survive. You are physically fit, but deep down inside you are scared. Scared that you aren’t brave enough, scared that you aren’t strong enough, scared that you aren’t tough enough. Your dispatcher calls you on the radio and says this: 

“Respond to 135 Maple Ave. for a possible domestic assault in progress.” 

You activate your lights and sirens and the adrenaline dumps into your system. You take some deep breaths and try to implement those emotional control exercises they taught you in the Academy. You start talking to yourself:  

“Why didn’t I pay closer attention in the Academy that day? Get it together. Stop your hands from shaking. You can handle this.”   

Your dispatcher calls you again: 

“Unit responding to 135 Maple Ave. ... additional information ... adult male is out of control assaulting a female and throwing furniture around the house ... unknown if weapons are involved ... We can hear the female screaming and crying in the background ... backup is not available.” 

You turn onto Maple Ave. and start looking for 135. You start going over your training: 

“Get control of the situation. Keep your head on a swivel. Watch out for weapons. What kind of jerk assaults a woman?” 

Your dispatcher calls you again: 

“Unit responding to 135 Maple Ave. … additional information ... subject may have autism.” 

You pull up to the house. You hear screaming, glass shattering and crying. 

“Autism? What is that? Didn’t Dustin Hoffman play a guy with autism in that movie with Tom Cruise? Get your mind right, Hot Shot ... it’s GO time!” 

You open the front door ... 

In this scenario, is it at all difficult to understand how tragedy can occur? We know there is a need for more training and understanding of ASD within the ranks of our police departments. We also know there is a communication gap between ASD families and the cops who are sworn to serve them.

Several months ago I wrote an article offering my perspective as a police officer and an autism dad on the need for understanding and empathy from both sides of an issue that is growing larger by the day: police interactions with individuals on the autism spectrum: Police and Autism. As an autism dad I understand the instinct to throw our hands up and demand that our police and first responders become more knowledgeable and skillful in dealing with our loved ones on the spectrum. And those who make that argument are 100 percent right. 

But what can you do about it? 


I firmly believe in the proverb “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” I humbly assert that parents and caregivers of ASD individuals must take more responsibility for advocating for their loved ones and take a more active stance in educating their local first responders. 

Who, other than you, is more knowledgeable about your loved one’s needs? Who knows your loved one’s fears, anxieties, pet peeves and emotional distress triggers better than you? Who is more in tune with the most effective and efficient avenues of communication with your loved one? Who is better equipped to advocate for your loved one and educate your local police officers ... the people who will be responding to your home in an emergency ... than YOU?

If you are anything like me, you have spent your life advocating for your loved one. You have all but gone to war with the school districts, the insurance companies, doctors, your neighbors and perhaps your own family on your family member’s behalf. Take that energy and that passion for advocacy and proactively address your local police agency. It is not as hard as it seems.

Here are four steps you can take right now to bridge the gap with your local police officers, increase awareness of ASD and better ensure that when a crisis occurs, your loved one will be treated with understanding and compassion rather than being misjudged and misunderstood:

  • Take a field trip to your local police department. We don’t close. Stop in on a day when your loved one is in a calm and happy frame of mind. Introduce him to as many officers as possible and encourage the officers to ask questions. Remember, it is highly possible that this may be the officers’ first encounter with someone on the autism spectrum. We are human beings too. The officers may be nervous or feel awkward at first. Let them know it’s OK and try to break through that initial anxiety. It is much better to deal with these issues in a calm, controlled and friendly environment than during an emergency situation when your loved one is having a meltdown. During this visit you may even learn of some anxiety-causing issues with your loved one of which you were previously unaware. The loud squelch of a police radio, for example may be very startling the first time it’s heard. Imagine how this could escalate an emergency situation in your home when your loved one is already in a heightened state of anxiety.  
  • Ask… No, demand that your address be “flagged” in your local police database as a home of a special needs individual. Offer as much detail as possible about your loved one including: 1) wandering tendencies; 2) behavioral issues you are dealing with (anger management, defiance, anxiety); 3) sensitivities (loud noises, touching, flashing lights, etc.); and 4) fascinations and fixations (TV shows, toys, food, etc.). In police work we learn early and often that the “unknown” gets us hurt. Thus, we are instinctively nervous about the “unknown” and conversely more at ease when armed with details and useful information. Actively seek ways to provide that information. I know it may sound odd, but seek ways to reduce the anxiety levels of your local police officers as well as your loved one. The best time to do this is before an emergency arises. If you have privacy concerns about providing such personal information to the authorities, at the very least consider listing this information on a piece of paper and keeping it easily accessible in your home in case of an emergency. 
  • Create comfort, even excitement about police officers, police cars, and the police station. Point out police cars on the road and talk to your loved one about their role in your community and their commitment to keeping us safe and secure. Explain that police officers are friends and not people to be feared or nervous around. 
  • Avoid the temptation of threatening your loved one with “calling the police” as a disciplinary tactic. It’s usually a hollow threat, and thus unlikely to change behavior. But it often fosters fear and anxiety that can exacerbate tensions during already tense emergency encounters. With individuals who have limited expressive language abilities and difficulties articulating fear and anxiety, this is especially significant. They may react to this anxiety by running away, hiding, or with violence. These reactions can lead to tragic consequences if misinterpreted by the responding police officers.

Let’s revisit the earlier scenario. You are the same police officer responding to the same house for the same “domestic assault.” This time, however,  let’s imagine that the “victim” had proactively taken the steps I just outlined:

“Respond to 135 Maple Ave. for a possible domestic assault in progress.” 

You activate your lights and sirens and the adrenaline dumps into your system. You take some deep breaths and try to implement those emotional control exercises they taught you in the Academy. You start talking to yourself: 

“135 Maple? That is Robbie Taylor’s house. I remember meeting him and his family at the police station last year. He loved my whistle.”  

Your dispatcher calls you again: 

“Unit responding to 135 Maple Ave. ... additional information ... adult male with autism named 'Robbie' is having an emotional crisis. Mom needs assistance in calming and controlling him."   

You turn onto Maple Ave. and start looking for 135. You start remembering your conversation with Robbie’s mom: 

“Robbie is a very gentle person. But he sometimes gets frustrated when he can’t communicate his needs. On occasion he gets emotional and lashes out. We have found that, if he trusts you, he can be redirected by asking him about some of his favorite things. He loves the NY Yankees, Batman movies and surfing. He has a difficult time expressing himself, but he is very intelligent and understands everything you say." 

A fellow police officer calls you on the radio: 

“Unit responding to 135 Maple Ave. ... I just spoke to Robbie’s Mom yesterday. She said he is very anxious about attending a new school on Monday.” 

You pull up to the house. You hear Robbie crying and his Mom trying to calm him. 

“My portable radio scared Robbie the last time we talked. I’ll turn the volume down. Let me grab my whistle. I just heard the Yankees traded A.J. Burnett ...” 

You open the front door ... 

Clearly, this second scenario holds a much greater probability of a positive outcome for all involved. Yes, it is still a tenuous situation and emotions are high. But at least we are beginning the encounter on a foundation of understanding and compassion. 

Once the officer arrives at your home, even if you are upset, exhausted or injured, you are still your loved one’s most capable advocate. Try to remain calm and concise with the information you provide. Explain his challenges, abilities and emotional triggers as best you can and offer any practical advice you can to the officer. I personally hate phrases like “communication capacity of a ____ year-old.”  However, over simplifications such as these are often useful in quickly painting a picture for people who have never met your loved one. 

Remember, the officer’s primary responsibility is the physical safety of everyone involved in the incident. This may require temporarily restraining your loved one. This is always traumatic for both of you. Try to remain calm and understand that restraint will be removed as soon as control can be achieved safely. 

If you or your loved one is injured, EMS will be called to treat you. This will involve several additional strangers in your home and could increase tensions once they have eased. Keep your head and be prepared to explain your loved one’s condition and circumstances all over again. Once the police and EMS have gained control of the situation, a difficult decision will have to be made regarding the care and custody of your loved one. This will involve weighing four basic options: 

  •  Leaving him in your custody. If your loved one has been sufficiently calmed and there is no longer any threat to the physical safety of anyone in your home, this is often the best, most practical and least traumatic choice. 
  • Transferring custody of her to a friend or family member temporarily. It may be best to remove your loved one from your home for a time to allow everyone a chance to collect themselves and decompress. Be prepared to offer suggestions of family or friends who may be willing to help and with whom she is comfortable. If these options can be prearranged prior to a crisis it could prove invaluable. 
  • Transporting him to a Crisis Intervention Unit of a local hospital. The professionals staffing these units are highly skilled and dedicated to providing care and guidance to individuals suffering from depression, narcotics/alcohol addiction and other emotional crises. Their experience with individuals with ASD may be limited, however. And the process of transporting your loved one to a clinical facility may be extremely traumatic. Understand, however, that if he cannot be calmed sufficiently to ensure the safety of all involved, the police officers will have no other choice but to make this call. 
  • Arresting your loved one and transporting her to the police station to be charged criminally. The chances of this happening are not high. But, to be thorough, I have to mention it. Obviously, it is difficult to speak so generally about these situations involving so many variables with individuals on the autism spectrum. But it is possible that the police on the scene determine that she is sufficiently rational and capable of distinguishing between right and wrong and has consciously disregarded the law. Again, the information you provide during this critical decision point will weigh heavily on the outcome.

These crisis situations are difficult to think about. I don’t even like writing about them. With a small amount of preparation and forethought, however, we can minimize trauma and avoid tragedy. We all have work to do. Police and first responders, without argument, must increase our understanding and acceptance of ASD individuals. I believe this must be done on a local level, however. The key, as usual, lies in our hands as the caretakers of individuals on the spectrum. We have proven over and over again that our love and dedication for our loved ones can move mountains. I have no doubt that, together, we can bridge this gap too.

Comment Options

Anonymous (not verified)

How to keep those with ASD from being incarcerated?

Hello. I am a 30 something adult on the spectrum who has had numerous interactions with local police over the past 17 years. I appreciate your advice and perspective for both sides. However, I feel like I must be perfect, like I can never make a mistake when police are present. Not every officer understands or has had sufficent training (only new officers get training in my state). I don't premeditate being violent or relish my memories of lashing out involuntarily (despite my best efforts) toward an officer who tried to restrain me or yelled at me, had a loud radio, etc. There is a disturbing trend of autistic people & the mentally ill being incarcerated. Maybe you heard about Daniel Jason, a man with AS now serving a 55 year sentence for drawing a threatining picture and sending it to his lawyer in haste. I have done something similar in the past. This could be my story. Both my parents are gone now. I am home alone most of the time. I do not trust (based on experience) calling 911 if I have an emergency (say a neighbor who is setting off M80's long after July 4th). I have to rely on family to speak for me as I am verbal, but not capable of advocating for myself under stress. What can be done to keep the criminal justice system from sending autistic people to jail (and subsequent prison via a jury & judge)? You probably cannot answer the question of litigation, but what about the police part?


My hope is that in 2013 all

My hope is that in 2013 all officers are more aware of Autism and how to handle a situation when it occurs.


Excellent article,thanks!

I too am a strong believer in prevention of meltdowns, but when that fails the next step is recovery and Jerry's article touches on prevention and provides good suggestions for speeding recovery. I'll be referencing it when I talk with my local police force on Monday. Thanks! Betsey www.autismfieldwork.com


'Prevention' should precede 'management'

Jerry's work and writing are great stuff and sorely needed. Having said that, many of these incidents might have been prevented from occurring in the first place.www.HopefortheViolentlyAggressiveChild.com