About 1 in 59 children have an autism spectrum disorder in the United States.

About 1 in 6 children have severe intellectual and developmental disabilities like speech and language impairments, cerebral palsy, and autism.

People with disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of a violent crime.

Roughly one-third to half of all people killed by police are disabled.

Dealing with autistic and differently abled people has been a challenge for law enforcement, primarily due to a lack of training.

A deadly shooting on June 14 at a Costco in Corona, California, outside Los Angeles, brought this issue to the forefront again. Following the incident, a panel convened to increase awareness of autism, train officers, and prevent further such horrors. The panel, hosted by Autism Society Inland Empire, urged families to join the awareness discussion, share information, and help train law enforcement officers.

The why

A Los Angeles Times op-ed analyzed that most officers do not understand the symptoms of mental illness, physical or intellectual disability. They look at behaviors like self-stimulation, extreme anxiety, delusions, and rages as criminal behavior.

These officers need to know that having a disability is not a crime. Police forces around the country admit to this problem.

Most are now undergoing mandatory Crisis Intervention Training conducted by people trained in mental health disorders. Educating officers to recognize the signs of autism and training them in practical ways to approach an autistic person can minimize risk to both individuals and police officers.

Efforts to improve

Officers with the Brownsville (Texas) Police Department recently underwent comprehensive autism awareness training, which included real-life examples of local incidents involving individuals with autism. They saw for themselves how they have behaved historically and what they can do better.

During the training, officers also learned that not every person with special needs will behave in the same manner. Some individuals with autism may be nonverbal, like the Costco shooting victim, while others may appear nonchalant to danger and insensitive to pain.

It is all a matter of awareness. Once they gain better insight, officer interaction with the special needs community is sure to improve.

The Russellville Police Department in Arkansas is also undergoing similar training. The coursework has been designed with the help of a mother who has an autistic child, giving officers a unique perspective.

She offers the officers a real-life, connected, and emotional aspect that will be missing in the cut and dry curriculum. Officers will learn how to identify someone with autism, identify the different mannerisms that fall under the same diagnostic categories, and how to communicate with these individuals.

Parents and advocates in Boston are pushing for police officers to be trained in dealing with those on the autism spectrum. They hope that making these sessions mandatory would go a long way to prevent another deadly encounter from taking place.

Other departments who are actively setting up specialized training about autism and related disabilities for their officers include Belmont, Massachusetts; Lawrence, Massachusetts; Daviess County, Kentucky; and Parsippany, New Jersey, among others.