Autism, Law Enforcement and First Responders

Before I left for the Autism One/ Generation Rescue Conference, as usual I prepared my schedule as to which lecture to attend. With 100 lectures to choose from within 5 days, I can only be in one place at one time. At times, I found that I ended up in the last place I would thought I’d be. At times I thought I took a wrong turn, but ultimately I found myself always in the right place in the right time.

On Thursday morning, I wandered into the wrong conference hall, there’s at least half a dozen lecture rooms there. Too jet lagged and dopey, it took me a good 20 minutes to realize I was in the wrong lecture. Instead of an Advocacy and Legal lecture, I eventually realized that I was surrounded by big burly American cops, some with guns strapped in their holsters. Even the few ladies present were in law enforcement uniforms bristling with weapons.

The speaker Dennis Debbaudt was lecturing on Autism, Law Enforcement and First Responders. Oops! I was in the wrong conference room. As I was about to leave, Dennis introduced his colleague Dr Stephen Shore. Dennis and Dr Shore gave further insights on novel methods of dealing with children and adults with Autism. To policemen, firemen and paramedics. And the lost sleepy mum from Malaysia. Many times I wanted to leave, to attend the lecture I originally planned for, but I was transfixed. I did leave at one point to attend my original lecture, but my heart wasn’t in it. Something told me I had to go back and hear what else Dennis and Stephen had to say.

The realization suddenly hit me how crucial this type of training is to our law enforcement. We hear more and more reports of children with autism getting lost and wandering incidents. And a few deaths too. My heart goes out to the families.

Back in the days, my eldest daughter Mei was a runner, when we take her out in public, she would just run and run. And wouldn’t stop or look back at us. Many times you would see me running at full tilt, screaming her name at the top of my lungs, chasing after an extremely fast little girl. She could spot a puddle from 30 feet away and off she would run. As you know, children with autism are attracted to water, too many times we hear reports of children with autism drowning. I have lost Mei a couple of times, it only takes 3 seconds for our attention to wander and for her to suddenly take off. She was very fast and silent. I was lucky that through some miracle, we found her.

We all have our ‘losing our kids’ stories. Who do we call when our children wander? Will they know effective means to communicate with our children, whose communications skills are profoundly affected in the first place.


“Research indicates that persons with developmental disabilities are approximately seven times more likely to come in contact with law enforcement professionals than others. Police and first response professionals will meet children and adults with autism in field situations.” ~ Dennis Debbaudt

1 in 50 children are diagnosed with autism

Our police force will have to learn effective and safe methods when dealing with the ever increasing rate of children and adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. When I originally wrote this piece in 2011, the rate of autism was 1 in 88 children. Now, at 1 in 50 children diagnosed with autism, I hope our police force and first responders understand  just how crucial and urgent this type of training is.  Also, we need to start teaching our growing children safety issues, dealing with dangers and most importantly, for the law enforcement authorities to get appropriate training on safe and effective methods of communicating and dealing with citizens diagnosed with Autism. The ramifications are enormous, the need is high, our children are more vulnerable.

Autism statisticsAutism awareness and autism action should not just extend only to parents and educators. The community should extend to other service personnel, not just the medical profession and welfare protection services. Police, fire department, first responders eg. traffic wardens, paramedics, security personnel and many others need this training too. Our children are more vulnerable than ever, as parents we can’t protect our children 24 hours. We rely on educators and health professionals; they are rising to the occasion for which I am immensely grateful. The next step will be to extend it to law enforcement and first responders.

Benefits of the Autism, Law Enforcement & Public Safety Training:

• Increases Officer and Citizen Safety
• Enhances Officer Communication and Response Skills
• Saves Valuable Time and Resources
• Avoids Litigation
• Builds Community Partnerships


Dennis and Stephen conduct First Responder trainings regularly. The law enforcement officers learn the most effective methods when dealing with a pre-verbal child or an adult with communications disorders. On dealing with autistic behaviors or people with Aspergers which may initially seem suspicious to security personnel. On the safest ways to restrain them should force be deemed necessary. To take into account of the physical and medical conditions of persons with Autism. How issues such as hypotonia, a condition of low-muscle tone commonly found in Autism should be highlighted.

In their years and experience, Dennis and Stephen shared how adults with autism have suffered serious medical conditions or even died because when being restrained, the person is usually handcuffed and made to lie face down on the ground. For a person with autism, being in such a position for too long can cause difficulty with breathing as their low muscle tone especially their lungs cannot cope with such pressure.

Dennis and Stephen also emphasized on the communication and language disability common among people with autism. Some may not understand the instructions or questions asked by a policeman. Some have echolalia, and may parrot back what the policeman is saying. The policeman in turn would probably equate that to either evasive and suspicious behavior. Or in the later case, think that the person is either being a smart ass, drunk or on drugs. In certain countries, these odd behaviors may be regarded as how a suspicious criminal or potential terrorist might behave. An encounter that started innocently can rapidly escalate into a far more serious outcome. All scary situations we would not wish to happen to our children. Law enforcement officials and first responders will have to learn how people with autism struggle with social cues and body language.

They also showed samples of On-Scene Response Cards, which helps responders on the field. It can also be used by children or adults with Autism, parents or caregivers as a useful tool to hand out.

This is a sample of an Autism and Law Enforcement Training Video presented by Dennis and Stephen at the  Autism One/ Generation Rescue Conference 2011.

Why should first responders be trained for this? Because autism now covers such a huge population. And the numbers are ever growing.  The bottom line is, our children will grow up into adults.

Looking at the high prevalence rate, a first responder will encounter a person diagnosed with autism in the course of their work. There are many key concerns that us as parents should raise to first responders and law enforcement. What started as a wrong turn ended up into a huge realization in me as to the gap in our protective services. Later on over dinner with Dennis and Stephen, I gained a deeper sobering insight and perspective on further safety issues we need and should address.

Public Act 95-0171 (50 ILCS 705/7) requires all new officers to have autism training as part of their basic academy learning. This in-service trainer will help departments insure that all experienced officers have the same opportunity to learn about this topic.

Thank you to Dennis Debbaudt and Dr Stephen Shore for opening up my eyes. What I thought was a wrong turn, turned out to be the right place for me. The world would be a safer place for our children if only more first responders attended this training. Please contact your first responders ie. police, fire department and paramedics to find out if they have received up to date autism training.

~ Dragon Slayer

The Thinking Moms’ Revolution

Dennis Debbaudt is an author, trainer and consultant with various public law enforcement authorities in the United States. He is also the proud father of an adult son diagnosed with autism. You can find out more about his works at Autism Risk Management

Dr Stephen Shore is a world authority on Autism. He is a professor at Adelphi University teaching special education. He is an author, consultant and frequent speaker at various Autism conferences worldwide on living with Autism, self-advocacy and many more. Dr Shore was diagnosed with autism and was pre-verbal until he was 4 years old. His parents were advised to institutionalise him. Please read more about him at

* For more by Dragon Slayer, please CLICK HERE

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10 Responses to Autism, Law Enforcement and First Responders

  1. Samantha Hopkins says:

    I have a son on the spectrum. I had an incident once where I turned my back for a split second and then he was gone. We were on the eighth floor and I was 7 months pregnant. I couldn’t find him and went hysterical. I ran down the eight flights of stairs screaming his name to find him on the ground floor close to the street. Apparently, the elevators in that building open automatically and when I turned around for 2 second, he entered the elevator in the same time and ended up on the ground floor. I was very lucky I did not have a premature birth and I was also very lucky that he did not walk in the middle of the street. This was one of the worst incidents but many many many more wandering and running away from me incidents. He wandered out of his daycare classroom and they had to report it to the City of Toronto. My son needs 24 hour supervision, that is something I acknowledge which is why it is exhausting for me to keep up with and which is why I don’t trust anyone else with him because no one else thinks he needs that much supervision. I once left him in the playground at my parent’s house and went inside the kitchen (attached to playground) to get him water. By the time I walked back out, I found him in the back, at the balcony, with his head dangled between the fence and about to jump. Without thinking, I screamed at the top of my lungs until I paralyzed him in the middle of the attempt to jump from the balcony. Thinking back now, I really don;t know what to say. It’s extremely stressful. He doesn’t understand danger and that is a very big problem and takes a huge toll on me. To every mom out there with autistic children, my heart goes out to you. I know it’s extremely difficult but hang in there and get help. Please get help when you need it.

  2. Pingback: This Week in Autism, 2/7/14

  3. Donna says:

    Very important post and sorry to say hit close to home. We have two boys on the spectrum. Our eldest is 16. He has high functioning autism, verbal but with issues pertaining to inference and predicting how others might perceive his actions. A few years ago he was visiting his grandmother who resides in a small college town in Pa. He was taking his usual stroll around her block and past the local police station when he paused to admire a parked squad car. Of course, vehicles especially police cars are a special interest area of his so he innocently walked the perimeter of the car taking in every detail so he could then perfectly recreate it from memory–a gift he possesses. His joy ended when He was suddenly surrounded by two squad cars and officers who jumped out and approached with hands on their holsters. His panicked response was to throw his hands up and scream “don’t kill me, don’t kill me.” In their defense the officer did reassure him that he wasn’t going to kill him and just wanted to ask a few questions. (Concern as well). The officer then used our sons phone and contact list to call us. The discussion went something like this: they thought our son “Needed help” which then justifies probable cause to begin a field interrogation. This is also a grave concern. Why surround and question a teen minding his own business to begin with and what may have happened had our son fled instead of complying in a way that suggested to the officer he may have a disability? I could go on but will spare all and save it for the book some day. Our son was traumatized by this incident but we feel very lucky he wasn’t physically harmed or thrown into juvenile detention. We used the experience to help him understand how to deal with first responders. We are also quite proud of the choices he made that day and have encouraged him to stay calm and cooperate at all times. However we also need to address what happens to our adult children within the legal system while under interrogation. Many have unwittingly confessed to crimes due to their communication difficulties. Others are victimized by deliberate entrapment techniques employed by detectives. They may actually “confess” without awareness whatsoever. Some are on death row and it’s quite likely they are innocent because lawyers are also unaware and untrained to defend clients who can’t properly communicate their own defense during interviews. Today we at least have a sliver of hope for our children entering the lions den because of greater awareness of the disorder and the bit of protection the label affords but have a LONG road ahead. Thanks for posting and continuing the dialogue!

  4. KFuller says:

    It can be really hard to get First Response departments on board because of budgets. It is up to us to educate our local departments and stay on them. My husband is Administrative Analyst in Admin. for our Fire Dept. We pushed for a police registry for at risk citizens, and he put together a booklet for first responders. If anyone wants it, it can be sent electronically. It’s up to us to save our kids.

    • Diane Hardy says:

      Hello. I know this thread is old, but I am reaching out to see if you are still open to sending the booklet for first responders and/or any training information you may have. I work at a non-profit outside of Dallas, Texas that serves as a continuing education organization for Adults with Special Needs. We are researching to see how we can implement a training for our adults/community/law enforcement. Anything that you can share with us would be wonderful and so appreciated.

  5. Mountain Mama says:

    Thank you so much for drawing attention to what we can actively do in our community to ensure the safety of our children.

  6. Kim D says:

    Thanks for opening up my eyes. I never thought about the what if, some young adults could be in a bad situation rally quickly.

  7. sainttmr says:

    Wow! Just another thing we have to consider…that those trained to deal with emergency situations, will know how to deal with OUR children. THANK YOU for this amazing post my friend. I can’t wait to share it with a few friends in law enforcement. xoxoxo

  8. Heather says:

    My husband is a state policeman. Having 2 boys with autism, this IS one of our TOP priorities. Would love to organized a training in our area, in the future. Currently, he is at the Project lifesaver training, which is our main goal at the moment. Great training!

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