First impressions are important. The quickest way to determine the intentions and motives of an individual, is to analyze social interaction. Words, body language and eye contact are the factors which help most of society make this assessment. For police officers, and the communities they serve, this can be a life or death decision. For autistic individuals and their families, it can be a nightmare.
The problem is that autistic social interactions often mimic guilt or deceptiveness. Lack of eye contact, no verbal response, stumbling over words and pulling away may indicate, to a trained police officer, that a person is hiding something. The stress of a forced interaction with a police officer or paramedic can cause a meltdown in an autistic person. Even if they are not in any trouble.
In 2013, an 11-year-old girl was shot with a taser gun in Oregon for failing to respond to a police officer who was shouting to her. In 2011, an 8-year-old boy was handcuffed and detained by police when he had a meltdown at his school. Police officers, in each case, have been accused of acting inappropriately by some groups, and defended by others.
Often autistic sensory issues are the reason behind what is seen as odd or inappropriate behavior. An authoritative voice can sound threatening. A touch can feel like a slap. Misinterpretations on both sides can cause a benign incident to escalate.
These incidents occur more frequently as autistic children grow into adulthood. There are no easy solutions.
Some persons with autism carry cards that notify police officers and first responders of their neurological condition. It has been suggested that first responders take a course on what to expect when interacting with persons who have autism.
Cards cost money and additional training takes time, however, as autism now affects 1 in every 88 children born today, it is not going away soon. If police officers are armed with information on autistic behavior, it might help prevent incidents such as these from happening in the future.