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.
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.