📆 May 20, 2023 | ⏱️ 3 minute read | 🏷️ autism

Police Mistake Autism for Suspicious Behavior

It’s an unfortunate fact that autism symptoms overlap with what police consider suspicious behavior.

For example, police use of indirect communication and body language leads to misunderstandings with autistic people. Autistic persons’ atypical behavior including our lack of eye contact leads police to believe we’re hiding something. Shutting down and having meltdowns is dangerous around the police because they don’t understand what’s happening.

There’s supposed to be autism training in police departments to reduce this problem. However, from what I’ve read, the training is inconsistent. For someone like me who is autistic and decent at masking (pretending I’m not autistic) in public, police will never realize I’m autistic unless I disclose it. In other words, their training is useless unless I disclose my autism.

It’s always my discretion whether or not to inform the police that I’m autistic, but it poses a dilemma:

Suppose I disclose my autism to a police officer. Many neurotypicals, perhaps even most, treat autistic people poorly. It has been my personal experience that, if a neurotypical becomes angry enough at me, they will eventually make fun of my autism or try to use it as a weapon against me. How do I know the police won’t do the same? I’ve certainly heard cases where they did treat known autistic people worse. So maybe it’s better that they don’t know.

On the other hand, if I don’t disclose, it’s highly likely there will be miscommunication, I’ll be seen as suspicious or suspected of being on drugs, and I won’t necessarily even realize that the officer sees me as suspicious, so I won’t even have the opportunity to try to clear up any confusion.

Whether or not to disclose my autism is a judgment call I have to make and just hope that I get right. Personally, I find it highly preferable not to interact with police at all. There’s nothing for me to gain from it and a lot to lose.

As for ideas on how to improve the situation, I think that police officers should, at a minimum, be exposed to autistic people of different age ranges and support levels. The reason for that is because autism treatment and awareness focuses primarily on children. So it might not occur to a police officer that an adult behaving atypically may be autistic.

Additionally, with someone who can mask convincingly such as myself, police officers are more likely to see my behavior as suspicious even if I do disclose my autism. However, if they’ve already seen examples of autistic individuals masking, it may be possible to prevent misunderstandings.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the police to identify an autistic person every single time they encounter one. Even as an autistic person myself, someone you’d think should be good at identifying autism in others, I cannot identify some people as autistic. So I don’t expect neurotypical police to be able to do so either, at least not in every case. However, I think they can still do a better job than what we’re seeing right now given better training. That’s the point I’m trying to make.