Autism & First Responders

Effective training for working with people with Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Daniel M. McDonald  |   Jul 25, 2017

Law enforcement today is always learning new ways: car cameras, body cameras, Mobile Data, GPS capabilities, FLIR—just to name a few. These resources make handling the calls easier and safer. But what about the people we serve? What do we do to better understand them?

And: What if those individuals couldn’t speak? What if they don’t respond to verbal commands? These are just two of the challenges officers are presented with when they are called upon to interact with an individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism isn’t a new diagnosis. The term autism has existed since 1911 when a Swiss Psychiatrist named Dr. Eugen Bleuler used the word to describe a symptom of schizophrenia. In 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner conducted research in the United States that brought the more formal diagnosis of autism to America. Dr. Hans Asperger conducted similar research in German around the same time as Kanner that identified the higher functioning autism condition of Asperger’s Syndrome to the forefront of ASD related disorders.

Here are the facts.

  • Autism now affects 1 in 68 children and the number of those diagnosed is increasing;
  • 39-60 million U.S. residents are currently living within the Autism Spectrum;
  • Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the U.S.;
  • Autism costs a family can exceed $40,000 annually for medical and therapeutic services;
  • Boys are 4.5 times more likely than girls to have autism;
  • There is no medical detection or cure for autism;
  • There are no physical identifying markers of someone autism;
  • 50% of children in the Autism Spectrum never develop speech capabilities;
  • 40% have some type of seizure-related disorder;
  • 48% wander (elope) from a safe environment;
  • Drowning is the number one cause of death for children with ASD under 14 years old; and
  • 65% of students with autism are subjected to bullying by classmates or peers.

(Statistics provided by: Autism Speaks, National Autism Association & Autism Risk Management)

Since 2008, I have taught first responders practical steps they can utilize to recognize and respond to calls that involve people with autism. Two things that I have consistently found during that time is few programs exist for public safety to learn more, and they want to learn more about ASD.

This doesn’t have to be cost prohibitive and many of the steps that can be taken are likely present in your community. For example, initiating an autism-based partnership with your local school system affords us the opportunity to: 1) Establish resources with teachers, staff and therapists that can provide clarification, guidance and insight in incidents requiring public safety intervention; 2) Work with your SROs in their schools to see what Autism Behavior Cues look like; and 3) Extend an invitation to parents of students with autism to meet officers and discuss resources and safety suggestions available to help lessen the likelihood of their child becoming lost or injured.


These few simple steps afford the officers a chance to better educate themselves on ASD, the parents gain confidence in their first responders and members of your agency get to know the individuals in their community that they are likely to be called up to assist, before an incident becomes a far more serious issue. Establishing these positive and pro-active practices can be done at no additional cost to departments outside of normal duty time.

Implementation of a training component on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and simple steps to help first responders recognize and respond to individuals with these diagnoses can be simple and cost-effective.