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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

The autism community and police: a case study

By Sean O'Malley

​This is a story about a desperate mother named Lois, a troubled son with autism we will call Jack, and what a local police force did to keep a bad situation from getting even worse.

Five years ago, during the Christmas holiday season, Jack, then 17, was becoming increasingly anxious.  On one particular night, the family was plunged into crisis.

“We could tell how anxious he was because he was doing a lot of pacing back and forth,” says Lois, who lives in York region north of Toronto. “Several hours later, when we told Jack it was time for bed, the situation totally escalated.  He became violent.  We called 911.  It was my younger son who called.”

That night would mark the beginning of Lois’ relation with the York Regional Police.

“Two squad cars came to our home and they were so great with Jack. They told him he wasn’t being arrested or anything.  They just started talking to him, and learned he was really interested in their handcuffs and all of their equipment, so they engaged him in conversation about that.  They were kind and gentle. It was a really positive experience.”

According to a CAMH study just released in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders on interactions between people with autism and police, it doesn’t always work out that way.  While half of the participants in the study said the police response had a calming effect, one-third of them said the police response had the opposite effect.

For Lois that first time, it was a trip into the unknown.

“Is a call to police the best response for a parent? I didn’t know but that’s what you are left with if you are at home and fearing for your safety.  That’s the call you have to make.”

There would be several more interactions between Lois, Jack and the police over the next few years.  He was an enthusiastic student, loved his time in school, and did not act out towards anyone there.  But at home, as the family dynamic became increasingly dire, Lois found herself again dealing with police as a last resort.  Whether she wanted to or not.

“There was another incident a few years ago, when Jack pushed his father down the stairs and injured me as well,” says Lois.  We were living in such a state of denial at that time, not even realizing how unsustainable this was, that we didn’t call police that time.  But when Jack went to school on Monday, he told the staff what he had done, so they called the police and I met them there.”

With the family unit hanging on by a thread, and despite Jack’s confession, the police did not take him into custody.  They talked to him about what he had done and why it was wrong.  They facilitated an ongoing dialogue between Jack and a police liaison officer assigned to his school.

“They spent a lot of time talking to us, not just that day,” says Lois. “They were friendly.  They were calm. It would have been so much harder without that positive engagement.”

For York Regional Police Sergeant Chris Palmer, Lois and Jack’s experiences with his force is due to a concerted effort to provide ongoing training in crisis intervention for dealing with people with autism and members of other vulnerable communities.  They provide intensive week-long training several times a year that includes direct engagement with people with autism.

“A lot of police officers will say our role has become police officer slash social worker,” says Sgt. Palmer.  ”Back in the day it was very adversarial.  We’re the police, you do what we say.  Now a different mindset and more training means a lot more positive outcomes than there used to be.”

Take something as seemingly straightforward as asking for identification.

“Some people, they won’t be responsive if you ask them their name,” says Sgt. Palmer. “But if you take your wallet out and show them your driver’s license, they will take out their wallet and show you their ID.”

The York Regional Police are one of several forces in Ontario with a Vulnerable Person Registry, where the unique characteristics and triggers of people with autism can be made accessible to officers before an interaction takes place.  That’s something Lois did early on in her relationship with them.

It is something Sgt. Palmer says parents with children with autism should seriously consider.  It may even save a life.

“There was one particular young adult with autism we had dealt with before, who loved to play with toy guns and point them at people,” says Sgt. Palmer. “He had a complete infatuation with cops, always wanting to check out their guns and things like that.  He would stand on Yonge Street and point his toy gun at passing cars.  Fortunately he was on the registry so we knew what we were dealing with.”

Now 22, Jack is living on his own in a community living setting.  On the day I spoke to Lois, he was looking forward to a day at Canada’s Wonderland.  She still takes things day by day, but she does knowing that if she has to make that call again, there will be a welcoming voice on the other end.

“I have to trust that Jack is going to be OK.  We’ve done the best we can.  And when I say ‘we’ I mean the collective ‘we’.  There have been so many people who have been so supportive.  We never encountered anyone who made disparaging remarks or mistreated him.  We never had any of those experiences.”


Page published on June 15, 2017

Chris Palmer

York Regional Police Sergeant Chris Palmer

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