There’s No Autism Exception To The First Rule

On the bright side, it’s remarkable that there aren’t more tragic interactions between kids with autism spectrum disorder and police. Not that there aren’t enough, and they don’t turn tragic, but with the CDC estimating the incidence rate at 1 in 68 (down up from 1 in 110), there are bound to be more interactions. More importantly, as the prevalence of autism increases, and the children who suffer from it grow bigger and older, they present more of an apparent threat to cops.

Imagine if instead of being fair-haired and rail-thin, Connor had been powerfully built and black or Hispanic. A tense police officer, approaching a young man he thought was a threat to himself or others, might have been tempted to reach for his Taser or service weapon instead of his handcuffs.

Connor Leibel wasn’t doing anything to give rise to Buckeye, Arizona, police officer David Grossman’s concern for his safety. He was a young kid, standing there, being autistic. But Grossman had special training that kicked in.

As a graduate of Arizona’s Drug Evaluation and Classification program, Officer Grossman is certified as a “drug recognition expert.” But no one had trained him to recognize one of the classic signs of autism: the repetitive movements that autistic people rely on to manage their anxiety in stressful situations, known as self-stimulation or “stimming.” That’s what Connor was doing with the string when Officer Grossman noticed him while he was on patrol.

Would it be fair for a cop to see some kid behaving in a peculiar manner and suspect drugs? Sure. Would the cop then use his special cop voodoo to take control of the situation, look for the signs of a threat, and be prepared to act on it in case the First Rule of Policing had to be invoked? Certainly. But then, everything about Connor’s behavior, speech, demeanor, even language, would make a cop’s hair stand on end.

Not because Connor was a threat, but because he was autistic. If one looks at it from the cop perspective, everything Connor did, and didn’t do, was an indication of something bad. If one looks at it from Connor’s perspective, everything he did was entirely normal for an autistic kid.

Obviously, it’s not a crime to be autistic. Obviously, an autistic kid can’t become unautistic because a cop commands him to do so any more than a deaf person can hear when a cop screams “freeze” from behind, right before he pumps a few bullets into him.

While Grossman’s handling of Connor was awful, at least he survived.

Would the outcome have been more tragic if Connor wasn’t a scrawny white kid? Very likely. That cops see the situation from their perspective isn’t surprising. The same things they’re taught are threats are indicia of autism, but waiting to figure out which it is could put them in potential harm. That’s where the First Rule kicks in, and as it’s been watered down from the muzzle flash to the glint of steel to not being absolutely certain that there is no potential threat, the likelihood of tragedy increases exponentially.

Steve Silberman’s op-ed goes back to the old standby for fixing all that ails police interactions: training.

Last year I attended a presentation by Rob Zink, an officer from the St. Paul Police Department in Minnesota, who started the Cop Autism Response Education Project to train his fellow officers how to interact with autistic people, inspired by his experience of having two sons on the spectrum. Officer Zink pointed out that sirens and flashing lights alone can be catastrophic sensory overload for people with autism, while a calm voice and a reassuring demeanor can go a long way toward de-escalating a tense confrontation.

Now that we know that autism is common, and comes in all the hues and shades of a broad human spectrum, we need to give law enforcement officers the knowledge that they need to avoid turning a routine call into a life-altering calamity.

It’s deja vu all over again.

There is no doubt in my mind that police do not want to harm an autistic person.  But they do want to go home to their own family every night, and that means that they will invariably err on the side of doing what protects them over being particularly concerned for the welfare of the perceived “bad guy.”  One of the keys to this program is to take a moment to observe and identify an autistic person before pulling the trigger.

This will prove more difficult than you think, since stepping back and observing is an invitation for disaster for police.  You see, if the person is not autistic, but just your plain old vanilla miscreant, this gives the perp the opportunity to pull a gun and blow the officer’s head off.  Not a good outcome.  So how should the officer identify the individual who does not pose an immediate threat, and whom he should first observe rather than take a defensive posture?  Other than to say that it’s a decision that has to be made on a case by case basis, there are no rules that I can think of.

This comes from 2007, when Newsday ran a story about how police were being trained to be more sensitive to autism, and these tragedies were going to be avoided. Here’s another story to the same effect in 2017. It’s fair to anticipate that it will appear again in 2027.

But the problem won’t be cured by training. It’s adorable that well-intended people believe that there’s a fix, if only police become more sensitive to the behaviors and special needs of autistic people, but that won’t change the fact that the First Rule trumps all. The problem is with the First Rule, and neither police culture nor the courts display any interest in cops taking any chance of harm whatsoever.

While we can train them to recognize the signs of autism all day long, it won’t change anything until they stop employing force at the first hint of a potential for harm to them. And as scrawny autistic kids grow up and become burly autistic adults (or worse, black burly autistic adults who just won’t comply), the bodies will pile up.

37 thoughts on “There’s No Autism Exception To The First Rule

  1. Marc Whipple

    My daughter is autistic. Thankfully, she rarely exhibits this kind of behavior. But she won’t obey commands and she would resist (fairly ineffectually, but still) any attempt to physically restrain her. She is not capable of doing anything else. Her brain can’t tolerate it.

    So I would literally let her stab me before I would call the police to deal with inappropriate behavior on her part.

    I would advise any parent of an autistic child not to do it either. Well, frankly I would advise any parent of any child not to do it. Or anybody who didn’t want the person causing the problem killed. That’s what the First Rule math tells me. She *might* hurt me. The police *will* hurt her.

    1. SHG Post author

      Given its prevalence, there aren’t many parents/families without someone on the spectrum. I’ve suggested that parents introduce their children to their local police if they live in a small enough town that the cops know the residents, so they realize the issues should a confrontation ever happen. It’s not a sufficient answer, but there is no solution.

    1. SHG Post author

      I briefly pondered whether it was up or down, but was confident that whichever way I went, someone would tell me I was wrong. I’m similarly confident that my editor will beat me to a pulp if I’ve gotten it wrong.

          1. Erik

            Here’s the thing: 1 in 68 is a fraction, so you can double both numbers and get 2 in 136.

            Is it perhaps more intuitive that 2/136 is up from 1/110?

            1. David Meyer-Lindenberg

              That’s… actually less intuitive. 1/68 v. 1/110 holds the numerator steady, so all you have to know is that a larger denominator means a smaller fraction. 2/136 v. 1/110 requires you to:

              * compare the numerators and denominators;

              * remember that a larger numerator has the opposite effect on the size of the fraction as a larger denominator; and

              * simplify the fractions, unless you spot that 2/1 > 136/110, which kids (and lawyers) struggling with ratios are unlikely to do. Way more complexity for zero gain.

  2. JAV

    I hope there are other things that the autism response training teaches beyond loud noises, shouting, and flashing lights are bad and disorienting. I’m sure that’s the whole point from the officer’s point of view.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s not clear that any training could cover the panoply of spectrum disorder issues, as they’re so varied. What are the chances a cop can distinguish hand-flapping from furtive gestures?

  3. B. McLeod

    “Training” has certainly not proven to be a complete solution to use of force issues. But I do not see that it is any more helpful to suggest that the solution is a cultural change for officers to be less afraid (or to forego using force when they are afraid). I don’t see how you are ever going to get there.

    1. SHG Post author

      As I’ve explained before (pay attention, dammit), the point at which the First Rule kicks in has been in a slide for a long time. There was a time when cops weren’t afraid of every possible threat, and waited until they knew a threat was real before using force to protect themselves. Is it too much to expect a return to the days when they weren’t a bunch of cowards? And this helps to address (not solve, but address) all unnecessary police violence, not just the problem for the disabled.

      1. B. McLeod

        “Is it too much to expect a return to the days when . . .?”

        I have found that the answer to questions put in this formula is nearly always, “Yes.” Most people can’t even figure out why anyone would ever want to revert to some darker and less-woke period of yore.

  4. kemn

    Until courts start holding cops accountable, the First Rule will continue to govern their actions.

    I’m just wondering how “Protect and Serve” became “Cower and Shoot”. I thought cops were supposed to serve the public, and stand as a bulwark against the bad guys. Now, I guess, “bulwark” means “kill them all, and let god sort them out”.

    Being a police officer is a job, yes, but it’s also a calling, and a duty. You’re not an armed occupier, you’re a servant of the people…if only more police officers felt that way. I know that I declined an invitation to join the FBI because I knew I could not pull a gun on a person, and even 20 years ago, I was starting to see this happening.

  5. Erik H

    certified as a “drug recognition expert.”

    That’s like calling a black-and-white cookie a “chocolate cookie.”

    Expertise does not rest on the ability to recognize things. You can train a smart 11 year old to list behaviors. Expertise rests on the ability to distinguish things, in context, and to reject alternate explanations. If you can’t distinguish between an autistic 11 year old and an 11 year old on meth, you are not an “expert” in any sense of the word.

    1. Elpey P.

      This is the Critical Theory version of expertise. A lot of people don’t appreciate what an excellent example cops provide for the virtues of Critical Theory. Centering the proper lived experience provides one with formidable abilities to find what is being sought and “reject alternate explanations.”

  6. Mike

    Can we send your articles to some archive, so in 2107 it can be pointed out that cops were “trained” 100 years prior to the continuous calls they be trained again? Trying to be proactive.

  7. Ahaz

    I’m certainly a layman, but I saw no reason for this officer to initiate contact in the first place and this is what I believe is the crux of the problem with many incidents. Police need to have reasonable and articulable suspicion. I don’t know how that standard is defined today, especially in today’s policing environment. But police simply need to leave people alone unless the suspicion is real. Initiating unnecessary contact places officer and especially citizen at risk.

    1. SHG Post author

      You are certainly a layman, so read Terry v. Ohio. A kid standing alone is reason enough to approach under the public safety function, but they don’t need a reason to say “hi,” and if they observe anything, like failure to make eye contact, that is even remotely related to criminality (which is merely a matter of “articulating” a reason, like “he looked at me and turned away, as if to conceal his face, in a threatening manner), they’ve got themselves a Terry stop. Or to put it another way, cops can approach any damn time they want.

      1. Ahaz

        Thatt is the problem I was referring. We need to stop allowing officers to simply make stuff up in order to justify a stop which appears to be the problem here.

  8. Bartleby the Scrivener

    I’m a high functioning autistic and have experienced problems with the police because of it, but I tend to think society as a whole would be better served if the police stopped viewing the areas in which they work in a way similar to that a member of the military does a city in a war zone.

    I appreciate anything that will make it so they don’t threaten me anymore, but I think it would be more efficient to have them stop viewing me as an enemy from the very beginning.

    1. SHG Post author

      If you try really hard, you may be able to differentiate problems. Conflating them into a vague mush of meaninglessness helps no one.

    2. Anon Aspie

      Aspie here. You realize “high functioning” is relative, right? You can speak for yourself, but don’t confuse the problem in Ferguson with the problems for the autistic, deaf, etc. You don’t speak for me.

  9. JEA

    Could you insert a definition of the “First Rule” or a link to a previous post that identifies the “First Rule”? While most of your readers are repeat visitors, I am sure you get occasional visitors that are not familiar with your past writings.

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