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Autism meets the police what will your child do?

If teens and adults are not explicitly taught to be safe in this type of situation, then they are not! This fact is often overlooked in educational and personal planning, but that is a risky omission.

What will your teen or adult child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or a similar disability do in an inevitable encounter with the police? The question can strike fear in a parent's heart! Individuals with special needs may become lost or need help. They may be a victim of a crime, a suspect, or a witness. A person with an "invisible" disability like ASD has a greater likelihood of experiencing a police encounter than someone who does not have a disability. For these reasons it is a good idea to plan ahead for the day when such a situation will occur.

Training the police about ASD and other disabilities is clearly necessary as one part of the solution to improve interactions in these kinds of encounters. It is also vital to carefully teach skills for interacting with the police to teens and adults with ASD and similar conditions. Individuals need to know what to expect in different situations involving the police, and learn important basic skills to keep things calm and safe.

For example, a recent news story reported that a young man with ASD was tragically shot and killed by the police. When the police approached him and gave him instructions, the young man did not do what he was told. He reached towards his waistband. The police thought he was reaching for a gun. Whether or not the police know about a person's disability, they have only a split second to make a judgment in response to the behavior they see.

If teens and adults are not explicitly taught to be safe in this type of situation, then they are not! This fact is often overlooked in educational and personal planning, but that is a risky omission. No matter how old your child is today, don't leave his or her safety to chance!

Consider the upcoming school year the ideal time to become proactive about safety. Families and professionals can work together to identify needs, prioritize safety goals and create a personal safety plan for individuals with disabilities of all ages.


Most special learners will need a two-part approach to safety: reduce unsafe behavior while at the same time teach important safety skills. This method has the double benefit of preventing problems and improving outcomes.

When considering safety needs, the first question parents and teachers should ask is whether the child or adult currently has any dangerous behavior that could cause harm to the individual or others. Any dangerous behavior, such as running into the street, hitting, or letting strangers into their personal space should be identified as a safety need of the highest priority.

Dangerous behavior needs to be recognized and addressed as early as possible, rather than letting it continue on indefinitely. One reason is that it is harder to change a behavior that is ingrained as a habit over many years (think of smoking). Secondly, it is important to realize that a dangerous behavior can become a criminal offense as the person with a disability gets older. Hitting can become assault. Not recognizing boundaries can become stalking. These high-priority needs should be translated into goals, with a plan to teach new, safe behavior.

The flip side of eliminating dangerous behavior is promoting safe behavior. To help identify needs in this area, picture what you want to see your child do when he or she is 25 years old and interacting with the police! Picturing the future helps in identifying skills that matter for someone's whole life. Examples of positive safety skills include following directions, waiting, asking for help, and having a safe way to tell the police about their special needs.

It can take many years to learn these kinds of skills, so the sooner teaching begins, the better. It is never too early or too late to teach safety! Remember, if there are no individual safety goals in the Individual Education Plan (IEP), this area is not being addressed. Safety goals are especially critical for teens and adults. Be sure safety goals are incorporated into transition plans and lifetime planning in the areas of independent living, self-advocacy, and/or communication.

* Examples of safety goals for younger children include understanding what danger means, responding to instructions like stop and go, and taking no for an answer.

* Examples of safety goals for a teen or adult include following rules of privacy, understanding ownership of belongings, and understanding laws that must be followed once he or she turns 18.

* Additional goals for people of all ages that can prevent victimization include maintaining self-control, self-care/personal hygiene, and recognizing boundaries.


Once specific needs and goals are identified, parents, caregivers, educators and service providers can take advantage of specially-designed teaching tools to help everyone learn to be safe. While there may be many resources available for teaching young children safety skills, more specialized resources may be needed for teens and adults with disabilities. Here are five options to consider, depending on the age and needs your child, teen or adult. Remember that tools designed for individuals with ASD may be useful for a wide range of learners.

1 Taking Care of Myself: A Hygiene, Puberty, and Personal Curriculum for Young People with Autism by Mary Wrobel. Using simple stories and images, Wrobel addresses issues of puberty including hygiene, modesty, body growth and development, touching, personal safety, and more. This resource can help parents and educators teach important personal and safety skills that can maximize the child's or teen's potential for independence and lifelong success. (

2 BE SAFE The Movie is a new video modeling DVD from Camino Cinema that shows teens and adults with ASD how to be safe when interacting with the police. Young adult filmmakers with autism and related disabilities helped create BE SAFE to benefit others like themselves. The Movie features different scenarios that show individuals with disabilities interacting with real police officers, modeling what to do and say in everyday situations like a casual encounter, breaking the law by mistake, or an arrest situation. Most important of all, the narrator, police and actors explain why to take certain actions and avoid others. Spanish subtitles and closed captions help many people benefit from the DVD, that can be used at home, schools or community programs. (

3 BE SAFE Teaching Edition offers a 300-page Companion Curriculum to help teachers and parents teach learners with diverse language and cognitive levels benefit from BE SAFE The Movie. Numerous activities, stories, visual supports and resources expand on the meaning of more than 100 key safety words. Specialized materials are include to teach topics like personal space and boundaries, how to disclose a disability to the police, and the right to remain silent. (

4 A 5 Is Against the Law! Social Boundaries: Straight Up! An Honest Guide for Teens and Young Adults by Kari Dunn Buron. The books builds on Buron's Incredible 5Point Scale, with a focus on understanding and maintaining social boundaries. Topics covered include coping with anxiety before it begins to escalate, and avoiding impulsive behavior. (

5 Strategies for Youth. The Strategies for Youth website explains that the organization "exists solely for the purpose of improving police/youth interactions, advancing the cause of training public safety officers in the science of child and youth development and mental health, and supporting communities partnering to promote strong police/youth relationships." While designed for the general public, the information may be helpful to youth with disabilities. Resources include "Think About It First" Cards that talk about consequences of certain actions, and Juvenile Justice Jeopardy. (

So back to the initial question, Autism Meets The Police: What Will Your Child Do? While the question may still make you feel afraid, you can feel more secure knowing that you can actively shape the answer to the question, and not leave it to chance! You can take advantage of new safety tools and other resources to teach your child, teen or adult child to be safe, starting today.

Emily Iland, M.A. is an award-winning parent, author, advocate, researcher and leader in the autism field. She is an experienced educational consultant and adjunct professor at California State University, Northridge. Ms. Iland developed multiple autism trainings for the Los Angeles Police Department. She offers a variety of professional presentations about safety and the police for individuals with disabilities, parents, teachers, and other professionals including interactive screenings of Be Safe The Movie. Contact or at 661-297-4205.



BE SAFE The Movie is a unique new video modeling tool that can be used to teach essential safety skills to learners with a wide range of verbal and cognitive skills. Before viewing BE SAFE, 18-year-old Kevin Hosseini, an artist with Autism Spectrum Disorder, had several encounters with sheriff's deputies. Each time he had run away from them, and they gave chase.

After viewing BE SAFE, Kevin wrote, "After I watched the movie, I learned to stay calm, not to run away or argue. Do what the police officer tells you to do. Whether you do something wrong or not, you still need to stay calm and not run away. I also learned what a badge is and not to pet police dogs, especially when they're working. When a police officer stops me, I need to let him know I have autism."
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Author:Iland, Emily
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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