For those with autism, encounters with police can turn dangerous

Maureen Salamon

Being stopped and questioned by a police officer can be a stressful encounter for anyone, but it is especially hazardous for those with autism.

Things can go so wrong that the person with autism winds up in jail because of miscommunications and misunderstandings. Previous research has found that an estimated 1 in 5 teens with autism will be stopped and questioned by police before age 21. And people with disabilities, including autism, are five times more likely to be jailed than those without disabilities.

One child development expert laid out the scenarios that can lead to disaster during a police stop.

"A simple traffic stop can have tragic consequences for an individual with ASD [autism spectrum disorder]," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

"If a police officer does not recognize that the driver has autism, then they may misinterpret the failure to make eye contact, answer questions appropriately, or follow simple commands," he explained.

"If this happens, the police officer may become more wary and feel defied or threatened --- which could then lead to escalation of the situation -- with greater agitation or withdrawal by an individual with ASD," Adesman noted.

"Adolescents and adults with autism may respond inappropriately to questions or commands from a police officer or get agitated, which could then lead to a response from the police officer that could jeopardize the safety of that individual with ASD," he added.

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