Autism encounters with law enforcement

Have you ever fretted about what would happen if someone who has not learned to comply with commands encounters someone who expects immediate compliance? Suppose further that the person who relies on immediate compliance might escalate his or her demands for compliance when the other person, say a child who has behavior problems, does not immediately comply.

In a family or a classroom we might call this a “power struggle.” In the language of Patterson and his colleagues (Patterson, 1982; Patterson & Reid, 1970; Patterson, Reid, & Dishon, 1992), it’s the reciprocal escalation that forms the coercion cycle. When it occurs between an officer of the law and a child with Autism, I’d call it a recipe for disaster, even a nightmare scenario. It’s one about which I’ve written previously, more than once.

Here’s an example of that nightmare come true, as reported by Susan Ferriss of the Center for Public Integrity:

Diagnosed as autistic, the sixth-grader was being scolded for misbehavior one day and kicked a trash can at Linkhorne Middle School in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A police officer assigned to the school witnessed the tantrum, and filed a disorderly conduct charge against the sixth grader in juvenile court.

Just weeks later, in November, Kayleb, who is African-American, disobeyed a new rule — this one just for him — that he wait while other kids left class. The principal sent the same school officer to get him.

“He grabbed me and tried to take me to the office,” said Kayleb, a small, bespectacled boy who enjoys science. “I started pushing him away. He slammed me down, and then he handcuffed me.”

Ms. Ferriss’s article covers much more than the case of Kayleb. It’s about police actions throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, including multiple other problemsome interactions, and similar issues throughout the United States. I recommend it to interested readers. (The story also aired on PRX, RevealNews, Public Radio International and appeared in Time magazine.)

Police officers, agencies, and organizations have resources and some of them are using them, as I noted in 2007. a commercial site dedicated to law enforcement, published an article by Pamela Kulbarsh (15 Feb 2013) entitled Law Enforcement and Autism.

Although in 2009 National Public Radio reporter Joanne Silberner reported the International Association of Chiefs of Police was discussing ways to handle encounters with individuals with behavior disorders, when I perused the organization’s model policies on 11 April 2015, I did not find anything related to the topic. Certainly, this would be a good topic for the IACP to pow-wow about with a group such as the Council for Children with Behavior Disorders.

We really need to develop means of preventing these sorts of encounters. Ms. Ferriss has identified a substantial problem in the issue of charging children with crimes, to be sure. One important way to reduce that problem is to address the recurring problem of how officers interact with children who do not understand commands for immediate and full compliance. Tough and bossy has a low probability of success and a high probability of exacerbating problems in what often is an already untenable situation.

The data that Ms. Ferriss reports make a dismal companion for data about suspensions of students with disabilities. Please see my recent entry on SpedPro about Christina Samuels’s report of a study regarding suspension data by U.S. state.


Patterson, G. R. (1982). Coercive family process. Eugene, OR: Castalia.

Patterson, G. R., & Reid, J. B. (1970). Reciprocity and coercion: Two facets of social systems. In C. Neuringer & J. L. Michael (Eds.), Behavior modification in clinical psychology (pp. 133-177). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Patterson, G. R., Reid, J. B., & Dishion, T. J. (1992). Antisocial boys (Vol. 4). Eugene, OR: Castalia.

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