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Current Year Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

What happens when people with autism interact with police

TORONTO, June 13, 2017 - A new study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and York University says teens and adults with autism have frequent interactions with police, highlighting the need for people with autism, their families and police to be well-prepared to reduce the likelihood of negative interactions.

In an 18-month study of 284 Ontario adolescents and adults with autism just published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers found that 16% of people with autism had an interaction with police over that period.  The study found that while in almost half of the interactions the police response had a calming effect, in almost one-third of the cases the police response had the opposite effect.

"That's a high number," says Autism Ontario Executive Director Margaret Spoelstra. "Any interaction with police and vulnerable citizens should go well.  It's worrisome."

"There is a lot more work to be done," says CAMH Clinician-Scientist Dr. Yona Lunsky. "In our study, nearly two-thirds of families were satisfied with their police interaction. We are doing some great work but there is more that we can do.  Every time people with autism have a bad experience, it effects how they deal with police the next time."

Alert - Occupant with Autism
In 19% of police interactions, physical restraints were used.  In 30% of the cases, the person was escorted to an emergency department.  Only two of the interactions resulted in criminal charges.

The study found that the most common reason for police intervention was aggression.  Individuals with autism were more likely to  interact with police if they were  older,  living outside the family home, with no structured daytime activities, and/or a history of aggression, with parents who had higher levels of caregiver strain, as well as difficulty affording services. "This speaks to the need to support families in these situations before they get involved with police," says Dr. Lunsky.

But the study also found that people with less severe autism symptoms were as likely to interact with police as those with more severe symptoms, suggesting that police need to feel comfortable and familiar with the full autism spectrum. "There's a saying in the autism community, 'If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism'," says Dr. Lunsky. "Someone may look like they are non-verbal and not communicate with you, but that doesn't mean they don't understand you. Someone else could be very talkative, but that doesn't mean that they are fully comprehending what is being said in that stressful moment.  The police may think: they are not smiling or making eye contact, that means they are dangerous.  Or they see someone laughing and think: they are not taking the situation seriously, as opposed to recognizing that this may be how that person responds to a very stressful situation."

Autism advocates say there are many practical steps that police, people with autism and their caregivers can take to reduce the chance of having a negative interaction with police.  Many police forces have vulnerable person registries, where the unique characteristics and triggers of people with autism can be made accessible to police officers before an interaction takes place.  Autism Ontario provides special stickers that can be placed in car or home windows to indicate the presence of a person with autism, as well as velcro labels for the sneakers of children.  They encourage caregivers to pro-actively engage with their neighbours (who are sometimes the people who call police), to invite police to community events, and to consider bringing people with autism to police stations to get to know police prior to any police intervention.

For police, the key is to develop a broader understanding of the range of behaviours people with autism can exhibit.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders, who has a 12-year-old son with Autism, says enhanced and continued training is a key priority.

“We have added more layers in our training so officers have a better understanding of how to read cues from those with similar disabilities.  It is important we continue to evaluate and update this training so our officers are as informed as possible.  We want to make sure we get it right.  It is also critical that we maintain and develop partnerships with community agencies, like CAMH.  Ensuring the best possible outcome for people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder must be a shared responsibility.”

Toronto Police Chief with son
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders with his son (Courtesy: Toronto Police Service)

Sergeant Chris Palmer of the York Regional Police, one of the forces which has a Vulnerable Persons Database, says the job of a front line police officer has changed a great deal in his decades of policing.

"A lot of officers will say that our role is now police officer slash social worker," says Sgt. Palmer.

His force provides week-long training courses several times a year that includes the perspective of people with autism.

"Don't be afraid to call police," says Sgt. Palmer. "We're more educated than we were before.  The parents who struggle with this, wondering if they should really call police and hoping for the best, we want them to know they can call and know we can help them."

"Police need to be prepared to support this population," says Dr. Lunsky. "That includes understanding people with autism when they are not in crisis. If the only time you see people with autism is when you get a 911 call, you might think that is what they are like all the time."

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, as well as one of the world's leading research centres in its field. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental health and addiction issues. CAMH is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, and is a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Centre. For more information, please follow @CAMHnews on Twitter

For further information:

Sean O'Malley
Media Relations, CAMH
416 535 8501 x36663
media@camh.ca

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