Police Learn Techniques to Interact with Autistic Individuals

By Lauren Wanko

This wasn’t part of standard training when officers joined the force. Today hundreds of police officers from around the state met at Bergen County Community College to learn tactics and techniques for interacting with people with autism.

“We see the increase in the encounters that law enforcement is having with the autistic population. We thought it was important that they have an opportunity to learn how to recognize some of the behavioral patterns,” said Doreen Yanik, trial supervisor for the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. “Autistic individuals really have no outside or visible or physical marker that alert to their disability.”

Autism affects one in 88 children nationwide and one in 49 children in New Jersey.

“We are second in the nation, second only to Utah, which has one in 47 births,” Yanik said.

The training focuses on teaching law enforcement how to adjust their behavior in the field around autistic children and adults. Autism and law enforcement trainer Dennis Debbaudt says that starts with police officers recognizing they may be dealing with a person with autism and then adjusting their own communication and body language.

“When it’s safe to do so, you would want to slow things down — keep them simple, give them extra personal space, be aware of what the influence of the sensory environment,” Debbaudt said.

Debbaudt says nationwide police officers have reported mistaking autistic individuals with people under the influence of drugs and alcohol. He says this training will help law enforcement avoid those mistakes.

“Research indicates people with autism and other developmental disabilities will have up to seven times more contact with law enforcement then the general public,” Debbaudt said.

That’s because some people call law enforcement without realizing a person is autistic, assuming their behavior is suspicious, says Debbaudt. Autistic individuals also have a higher rate of dangerous wandering and victimization.

More than 100 law enforcement agencies from around the state participated in the two different training classes sponsored by the County Prosecutor’s Office of New Jersey.

“We are not asking officers to diagnose on the street. We couldn’t expect them to do that, but we are asking them to take a step back, recognize signs and symptoms and perhaps morph their reaction and response that is geared toward de-escalation,” Yanik said.

Tomorrow an autism educator and police officer will train a Union County recruit class on autism. The County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey says they hope that autistic training will ultimately be offered to all recruits throughout the state.