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Association News

Responding to Autism, Executive Director's Message, January

By Sue Riseling, Executive Director

Even as 2019 gets underway, we express our hope that your holidays were enjoyable and safe. We wish you and your institutions a productive and safe year. 

I had the honor of representing IACLEA at the Texas Association of College and University Police Administrators (TACUPA) annual meeting in San Antonio in December. Mike Ragan, or AggieTopCop, as he is better known, was recognized this year by the group for his leadership in Texas. Mike is a dedicated IACLEA Board Member who well serves the entire, large Southwest Region. Congrats, chief!

During TACUPA, I learned so much by attending a four-hour session on how police can improve their interactions with people on the autism spectrum.   I thought I would share with you some of the takeaways from that session and encourage you to learn more and train your officers, as well.

The chances of your officers encountering individuals on the autism spectrum continues to increase.  Elementary schools and high schools have had programs and special assistance in place for years to include students on the autism spectrum.  Many autistic individuals are some of the best and brightest college students today.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one in every 37 boys and one in 189 in girls is autistic.  Autism is a spectrum disorder—meaning there is a wide range of behaviors and challenges for autistic people and those with whom they interact. Autism is a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, and both non-verbal and verbal activities.  Naturally, not every autistic person acts or reacts the same way. 

Everyday your officers (sworn and non-sworn) encounter people in emergency situations.  While every emergency varies from the next, so does the autistic individual’s behavior.  Security, public safety, and police have procedures and protocols on “how to” handle situations for a wide range of incidents. Each leader should review those protocols to ensure they would work effectively when encountering an individual with autism.  Some of the tried-and-true tactics we use on a regular basis may be the opposite of what is needed in dealing with a person on the autism spectrum. 

Public safety personnel need to be more patient and, literally, give the autistic person space.  Our language should be simple and concrete.  This is not because autistic people lack intellect; instead, it is because they are intelligent and, often, extremely literal.  Their verbal responses may be delayed.  They may exhibit a fear of your uniform—or the opposite, be attracted to it and the shiny objects on it, wanting to touch those objects.  Officers should only touch people on the autism spectrum when absolutely necessary. 

Eye contact is not common for autistic individuals, and your eye contact can be upsetting and intimidating.  Avoid quick movements and loud noises.  Verbal commands—especially given in a raised voice—can be problematic for autistic people to process. 

Security directors, public safety directors, and police chiefs should ensure their officers know how to recognize the behavioral indicators of autism, how to best interact with people with autism, both in general and in an emergency.  Without such training the likelihood of something unfortunate occurring increases.

NOTE: IACLEA’s Universal Issues Series course Mental Health Concerns on Campus covers autism and best practices for interacting with autistic people. If you’d like to discuss bringing this course to your campus, please contact Director of Training Josh Bronson, or 202-618-8840.  Watch IACLEA communications for the next convening of the training.


IACLEA's Annual Conference & Exposition 2020 takes place in The Big Easy--New Orleans--June 22-25. Imagine IACLEA's outstanding educational programming presented in a city with world-class entertainment and food! Registration is OPEN!