Training Law Enforcement: FIU Embrace Seeks to Educate Officers on Autism

A young man with autism sits in the street playing with a toy truck. His caregiver is nearby lying down with his hands up, pleading with his charge to lie down and be still, while also asking police not to shoot.

Video of the incident in North Miami last year sent shockwaves throughout the country. A North Miami police officer shot the caregiver in the leg. A police union representative later said the officer was aiming for the man with autism because he thought the caregiver was in danger. Just recently, the officer in question was charged in a court of law.

These are the types of incidents that Dennis Debbaudt hopes to help law enforcement avoid.

He trains police officers and other first responders all over the country in best practices when it comes to interacting with people who have autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability which may cause difficulty when interacting with others in social situations. Individuals with autism can experience communication problems, and repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth.

Debbaudt led a training session in March for law enforcement officers, which was sponsored by FIU Embrace, an initiative at Florida International University to promote health, wellness and overall functioning for adults with developmental disabilities.

“People with autism are like us,” said Debbaudt as he began the training. “They want to have friends and work.”

He stressed one typically can’t tell someone has autism by looking at them, so he gave officers some strategies to use when they suspect someone may be on the spectrum.

Debbaudt also explained that there’s a wide variety of skill levels among the population. Some people with autism may need a caregiver to support them, while others live independently with minimal difficulties. As a result of the level of affectedness, some individuals may be nonverbal and use other means of communication, such as picture boards. Meanwhile, other affected individuals may have above-average vocabulary, but encounter difficulty with comprehension skills.

For Debbaudt, this work is personal. His 33-year-old son, Brad, has autism.

“He’s why I’m here,” Debbaudt said.

When Brad was young he sometimes had tantrums in public, and the family began experiencing contacts with police.

Sometimes when trying to get Brad to get in the car or otherwise comply, outsiders would see Debbaudt’s actions and report it to police as a possible child abduction.

“That concerned me,” said Debbaudt. “It caused me to search for information for the police about autism, and I found that there wasn’t any at that time.”

That started him on a quest to research the issue and develop ways to help officers learn how to respond to calls involving people with autism. Debbaudt was uniquely poised to do this work. He owned a private investigative agency for nearly 40 years, and spent time working as an investigative reporter. He has also authored over 40 articles, books, and chapters on the subject, including: Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders (2002), and Contact with Individuals with Autism: Effective Resolutions for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Risks Associated with Autism and Contacts with Law Enforcement

Research shows people on the spectrum are seven times more likely to have contact with police than people without autism. An officer’s chance of having contact with someone with autism may rise as more people are diagnosed with the condition. The number of people in the country who are diagnosed with autism continues to grow. Today, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that autism affects 1 child out of 68 in the United States. In 2006, it was estimated to be 1 in 168.

“People affected by developmental disabilities, such as autism, are members of our community,” said Nicole Attong, the director of FIU Embrace. “They are in shopping malls, and they are engaged in the community. And that is where we want them to be. Therefore, inevitably, they will come in contact with some law enforcement.”

Debbaudt says most of these contacts with police are due to missing person reports, suspicious person reports and meltdowns or tantrums.

If a person with autism who requires constant supervision wanders away from familiar surroundings, the consequences can be dire. That was the situation in North Miami. The young man had walked out of his group home. Debbaudt says those with autism are sometimes unable to recognize risks and manage them appropriately.

Sometimes, the behavior of a person with autism can be misconstrued for suspicious behavior. Someone talking to themselves, standing and staring into space or peeking into windows might lead concerned neighbors to call the police. That may lead to suspicious persons 911 calls.

Although, as Debbaudt pointed out, people on the spectrum are not more violent than the general population, and are generally more likely to be victims of a crime.

These contacts have the potential to become violent, especially when an officer has not been trained in how to interact with someone who has autism.

The prospect of that contact can be concerning for parents of children with autism.

Julio Quinones attended the training sponsored by FIU Embrace. Quinones is a lieutenant with the Miami Dade Schools Police Department. He also has a 17-year-old son with autism.

“I’m always worried that when I’m in public he might do something that people perceive as suspicious or dangerous or odd and they call police,” said Quinones. “I’m not sure how they’re going to react to my son, if they’re going to know how to treat him.”

Dr. Luis Carcache, who also attended the training session for first responders, is a psychiatrist with FIU Embrace and an assistant professor at FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.

He says police encounters can also be overwhelming for some people with autism due to sensory overload.

“It could be the loud noises, the flashing lights,” said Carcache.

In response to a sensory overload, affected individuals may run to get away from the stimuli, which could hamper efforts to find them if they’ve been reported missing, or make them look suspicious to law enforcement.

Quinones says he uses his knowledge of autism to try to help other officers understand it.

“As a police officer, one of the most important things I’ve learned is to go slow, take your time and be extremely patient with that person,” said Quinones.

This sentiment was also echoed by Debbaudt. He explained that it may take someone with autism longer to process what’s been said to them. He also encouraged officers to speak in short, verbal bullet points rather than lengthy sentences and to avoid slang or making jokes.

Attong says this type of training is important because it’s the responsibility of the community to learn how to engage those with autism.

“We’re doing this to improve the safety of people impacted by autism, and to give officers a different perspective of who these people are,” said Attong. “They are not people with disorders. They are people. I want law enforcement officers to see that, and see these individuals as valuable persons. If that is done, officers can engage them differently, and it could lead to a safer, more positive interaction.”

The event was the first in a series of community training sessions FIU Embrace plans to hold for various groups including emergency room physicians and urgent care center personnel.

For more information on programs and services offered by FIU Embrace, visit fiuembrace.fiu.edu or call 305-348-5377.