Law-enforcement officials often misinterpret
the language and behavior of people on the autism spectrum,
with serious consequences.
Latson is currently in a state-run psychiatric facility after being arrested for assault.
In late May, Clifford Grevemberg had a traumatic encounter with the police. Grevemberg, 18, was standing outside the Rock House Bar and Grill in Tybee Island, Ga., waiting for his brother to pick up some cheeseburgers when he was approached by officers, Tasered, and arrested for disorderly conduct. A police-department report posted by the Savannah Morning News says Grevemberg was “staggering back and forth and appeared to be either intoxicated or on something.” By the time his brother came out of the restaurant, Grevemberg was handcuffed and bleeding with a broken tooth. Only then did police receive the critical information they’d been missing: Clifford Grevemberg is autistic.
Three days later, and several hundred miles to the north, the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia had its own disturbing clash with autism. After receiving a call about a “suspicious male, possibly in possession of a gun,” sitting on the grass outside an elementary-school library, officers confronted Reginald Latson, 18, who is African-American and has Asperger’s disorder. Latson wound up being charged with assault and battery after he “proceeded to attack and assault the deputy,” according to a police report. No gun was ever found. Details of the incident are complex and still evolving, but the preliminary reports were enough to gain attention from members of the autistic community who worry their children could be next. In the words of one mother, this story is “my nightmare.”
Law enforcement and autism are a volatile mix, and not an uncommon one. “It happens quite regularly, unfortunately,” says Lee Grossman, president of the Autism Society, a grassroots organization based in Bethesda, Md. Decades ago, people with autism and other developmental disorders tended to land in institutions, where they had little interaction with anybody other than family members and staff. Today, autistic children and adults live with their families, go to local schools and, in some cases, get jobs in their communities. The unfortunate downside to this independence, says Grossman, is that “many more individuals on the spectrum are having run-ins with the police department and others, and it’s generally not a very positive experience.”
Autism is a diverse condition, but it is characterized by behaviors—repetitive movements, poor eye contact, sensitivity to lights and noise—that can be misinterpreted as unusual and even disrespectful. Even innocent behaviors can be come off as malicious. Grossman tells the story of an autistic man who loved to ride the bus. One day, he started staring at a female passenger. “She told him to stop, he wouldn’t, and it got uglier and uglier,” says Grossman. Ultimately, the police were called. The man’s crime turned out to be an autistic trait: fixation on a single object. In this case, the man was fascinated by the woman’s dangling earring.
One of autism’s defining features is the inability to process even the most mundane social interactions. When police are involved, an autistic person’s anxiety level is likely to spike, triggering unnerving mannerisms or behaviors. The person may say nothing at all, appearing to ignore an officer’s commands. Or he may repeat back what somebody says to him, a form of communication medically known as echolalia. “You can imagine if a police officer comes up and says, ‘What’s your name?’ and the kid’s response is, ‘What’s your name?’ the police will figure he’s a smart aleck or he’s on drugs,” says Grossman. “Usually, the situation goes downhill from there.”
Dennis Debbaudt, author of Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals, is trying to stop the misunderstanding before it happens. Debbaudt, the father of a young man with autism, has conducted autism training sessions for law enforcement for the last 15 years. Today, he says, “I’ve never been busier.”
It was an incident with his son more than 20 years ago that triggered Debbaudt’s interest in educating police. When he couldn’t get a toy he wanted at the mall, his son, who was about 5 or 6 at the time, had a full-fledged meltdown. “He fell to the floor, he was lying face up, his back arched, red-faced, teary-eyed and screaming,” Debbaudt says. “When I bent over to pick him up, he was kicking and trying to scratch me.” Debbaudt managed to carry his son out of the store, but was then surrounded by mall police responding to a report of a possible child abduction. Public misperceptions about his son’s autism and the chaos that ensued made Debbaudt determined to raise awareness. “I wanted to get material about autism to the police,” says Debbaudt, “and I learned there wasn’t any.”
When Debbaudt started his training sessions in 1995, only a handful of audience members even knew about autism. “Now I can’t even ask that question because everybody has heard of it,” he says. But that doesn’t translate to understanding. In his sessions, Debbaudt outlines the communication challenges law enforcement will likely face. He encourages officers to speak softly in clear and simple terms (avoiding idioms like “Are you pulling my leg?”) and to project calming body language, like keeping hands low rather than raised. Sensory overloads can cause autistic people to become aggressive or to flee, so flashing lights and sirens should be minimized or turned off if it’s safe to do so. Ideally, officers should keep a safe distance and keep the pace slow, giving the person time and space to calm himself down.
Brent Stevenson, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police, brought Debbaudt in to educate his members in June. The high-profile shooting death of a mentally disabled 21-year-old Arkansas man in 2006 (the officer told a judge that “I mistook this young man’s actions as threatening toward me and the other officers, and I made the mistake of acting on this misunderstanding”) spotlighted the need for more education about cognitive and developmental disorders. Because autism can be difficult to recognize, says Stevenson, “the more training you have, the better chance officers have of being able to deal with the situation at hand.”
Victoria Barkley Robinett, an instructor at the Law Enforcement Training Academy at Black River Technical College in Pocahontas, Ark., attended Debbaudt’s session and plans to teach her recruits what she learned. One thing Debbaudt stresses is the benefit of disclosure: if police know ahead of time that the person they’re dealing with is autistic, they can adjust their behavior accordingly. He urges law enforcers to consider creating a voluntary 911 registry that would allow people with autism or their families to provide essential information, including a digital photograph, so police would know who they are and where they live. Law-enforcement departments in California and New Hampshire have instituted registration programs, and Robinett says she plans to suggest it to police chiefs in her state. “To go to a cold call with an autistic person and not have a clue could escalate a situation,” she says. “There’s no need for that.”
Had Georgia police known about Clifford Grevemberg’s diagnosis before their encounter, they might have acted differently. Since the incident, local police officers have attended an educational session on autism. But that won’t resolve what happened to Grevemberg. In June, he and his mother filed a lawsuit against the city.