Standing in his full dress police uniform at a funeral recently, Hanover County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Tim Sutton was startled when a young man walked up to him, stood almost chest-to-chest with him, starting touching his badge, and then reached for Sutton’s gun.
Reaching for a police officer’s gun typically leads to quick, decisive action, and Sutton has seen his share. But he recognized that the man was autistic. Sutton backed away.
“He wasn’t a threat,” Sutton said. “Sometimes they don’t understand. And you need to be aware of that.”
Roanoke Police Officer Travis Akins piped in. “If someone grabs your badge, is that an issue for anybody in here? Let’s be real, what might happen?”
The “anybody in here” was an audience of police officers and sheriff’s deputies from Fairfax and Prince William counties, as well as Falls Church, Vienna and Herndon police, who were learning how to recognize and handle the rapidly growing population of people with autism in Northern Virginia.
Authorities estimate that one in 110 babies is born with autism, which manifests itself differently in each person. Some are mute. Some are obsessive. Some are savants. There are 2,200 autistic students in the Fairfax schools alone, and 12,000 in Virginia.
And failing to recognize autism, for a cop in the heat of the moment, can turn out badly.
Everyone in the classroom at the Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy was aware of the recent incident in Stafford County, in which a 19-year-old autistic man did not promptly give a response when an officer asked his name. The officer tried to arrest him, the man fought back, and a jury last month convicted him of assault and recommended a sentence of 10 1/2 years in prison.
In Los Angeles, officers have shot and killed two autistic men in recent years, including one last year who did not take his hands out of his pockets.
Sutton and Akins conducted the seminar with Didi Zaryczny, a parent of an autistic child and a member of the Commonwealth Autism Service, which has been pushing for more public safety training in recent years.
And this was not just four hours of sensitivity training. Sutton, Akins and Zaryczny offered up a continuous stream of practical tips for officers on the street, in recognizing people with autism, dealing calmly with them, realizing their susceptibility to becoming crime victims and finding them when they disappear.
“Get out there, meet them, know them,” Akins told the officers. “Show them the uniform is there to keep them safe.” One Fairfax officer in the audience pointed out that simply returning a runaway home is not a “positive” experience for an autistic person, and can cause them to flee any officer, at any time, in the future.
Forty percent of autistic people are mute. Others have echolalia, repeating back things that are said to them. “Might you interpret that as being a smart ass?” Akins asked his audience. “Yes, you might. So many officers are so quick to react. ‘Do it now!’ I used to be one. I tell a lot of horror stories. Remember that calm breeds calm. Resist the impulse to act quickly. We’re misinterpreting a lot of these people’s actions.”
When an arrest is necessary, Sutton stressed that officers must place autistic people on their sides, because a lack of muscle tone can cause them to suffocate. “You handcuff ’em, put ’em face down on the ground while you’re waiting for a backup unit,” Sutton said. “All of a sudden, they’re dead.”
Autistic people gravitate toward water as a calming influence when they are stressed, and that includes when they run away from home. “Every district officer, you absolutely have got to know your water sources,” Akins implored them.
The inability of autistic people to recognize that they are being manipulated, or bullied, can put them in bad situations. Sutton said autistic people are easily convinced to be drug mules. “‘Can you take this package over there?’ Next thing you know, they’re running drugs, and they can’t explain what happened,” Sutton said.
Similarly, a lack of guile may lead them to be molested. Sutton said they are easy targets for sexual predators who ask, “Do you want to go for a ride?” Scott Campbell, a member of the Parents of Autistic Children of Northern Virginia, said 80 percent of females with autism report being sexually assaulted, and 40 percent report 10 or more incidents. Campbell also does training for law enforcement, and he was in the audience as another helpful voice. He said some officers keep photos and notes in their cruisers of autistic people in their patrol areas.
Doug Coulter, a Fairfax officer in the West Springfield district, said he was taking his training back to his colleagues at the station. He said he had found missing Alzheimer’s patients in creeks, but no one had ever explained why searchers should immediately look for nearby water.
“To serve and protect,” Akins reminded his fellow officers. “I think that’s what the vast majority of us signed up for years ago. What an excellent opportunity to protect those who can’t protect themselves.”