Why you should care
Police departments across the U.S. can do with more sensitivity.
One morning last year, 18-year-old Reginald “Neli” Latson was sitting outside a school library in Stafford County, Virginia, waiting for it to open. A police officer approached. Latson, who is African American and autistic, did not give his name when he was asked and attempted to walk away, which led to an altercation. He was charged with assaulting a police officer and sentenced to two years behind bars, plus eight years of probation.
Latson’s situation is all too common for the autistic community. According to a 2017 study from Drexel University in Philadelphia, by age 21, 1 in every 5 youths with autism is stopped and questioned by police, and 1 in 20 is arrested. Now, police departments, state governments, universities, hospitals and researchers are beginning to come together to break that cycle and improve relations between the autistic community and police.
In Texas, a new law on the books allows autistic adults to get a tag on their car license plate indicating that the driver is autistic in the event of a traffic stop. Someone who brings a doctor’s note to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles can receive this sign. Last year, New York state introduced funding in police budgets specifically for training to deal with autistic adults.
Over the summer, the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University started an expansive study on policing with the autistic community. The university partnered with police departments, the ed tech startup Floreo and local community members to understand how to make communities safer for autistic people. And in just the past month, training programs for police departments have popped up all over the country, from Tallapoosa County, Alabama, to San Luis Obispo, California.
And many more police departments might soon have additional funding for similar programs, thanks to the Autism CARES Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in September. The law would allocate $1.8 billion over five years to expand resources to children and adults with autism.
“Autism CARES expands government programs to include older persons with autism who were, and are, often misdiagnosed, underdiagnosed and overlooked,” says the office of Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), author of the bill, which was co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.).
The law will expand the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) to include several representatives from the Department of Justice. The move allows police departments and other law enforcement agencies to expand training for officers when they interact with the autistic community.
The challenge remains significant. “Police brutality is a major concern,” says David Hall, CEO of the nonprofit Life Guides for Autism, NeuroGuides. “Especially in communities of color, autistic adults go without diagnosis and without treatment.”
That’s also why Hall is concerned that some of the moves being taken to address police excesses against people with autism might see limited gains, especially for those who haven’t been diagnosed. “This will help autistic adults who have access to mental health care, but this does not help autistic adults in communities of color who do not have the same access. And people of color are more often than not the victims of police brutality,” he says. Addressing the concerns of the autistic community is also only one part of the larger challenge involved in reforming the way police deal with vulnerable communities more broadly — a problem seen in the disproportionately high number of Black men, mostly unarmed, who die at the hands of officers every year.
Still, any progress could lead to benefits for people with autism across communities. The project at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute involves virtual reality to train police officers. The Philadelphia Police Department has publicly said that the training is helping officers learn how to de-escalate situations that might arise when stopping people with autism. Meanwhile, Floreo’s system is designed to help teach autistic people how to deal with a wide variety of social situations, 18 of which involve interactions with law enforcement.
And in October, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, announced the launch of a new police training program of their own. Their program allows officers to train with actors who will exhibit behaviors commonly associated with the autism spectrum.
Hall remains skeptical that these initiatives will fundamentally transform the way police deal with people with autism. But he acknowledges that with the attempts at improving policing, “there is some hope.”