This Devastating Scenario Reminds Us How Important Autism Training Is for Police

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A cop shows up to a house because of a call about a disturbance. A young boy has become violent, hitting himself and threatening the safety of those around him in the process. As a cop, as someone who is supposed to protect the people in his community, he has to take control of the situation — but what if the young boy isn’t in control of his own actions? What if he’s stuck mentally on one thought, one sensation, and that sensation is so uncomfortable for him that his body is overreacting trying to process it? What if the blinding lights outside and whining siren are making him panic even more? And what if, because of this frenzied environment, the young boy refuses to listen or lashes out when the cop tries to intervene?

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Rob Zink, a 45-year-old police officer in St. Paul, is training other members of the force to know the answers to those questions. Two out of his three sons have autism; one is 12 years old, and the other is 10. Because Zink is so familiar with autism traits and is also well aware of what typically happens when cops arrive on the scene of a domestic violence dispute, he’s in a unique position of being familiar with how both parties react. And he knows that if the police aren’t aware that a person involved has autism, things can get out of hand. In fact, someone on the spectrum is 7 to 12 times more likely to come into contact with the police, either as a victim or an assailant.

So Zink recently spearheaded a new initiative called the Cop Autism Response Education (CARE) Project, to help law enforcement in St. Paul understand how to end disputes with people on the spectrum safely. Zink is focused on two major priorities: first, to become familiar with the families in St. Paul who have children with ASD, and make sure the families understand how police typically respond to domestic violence calls; and second, the Autism Response Education (CARE) Project. His first priority has been getting to know St. Paul families with autistic children and explaining how police respond to domestic violence calls—not uncommon scenarios involving those with an autism spectrum disorder. His second is helping police find quieter and gentler ways to defuse those calls and resolve domestic violence situations involving those on the spectrum. 

“Someone on the spectrum is 7 to 12 times more likely to come into contact with the police, either as a victim or an assailant.”

police-cuffing-suspect_shutterstock_150668030When police everywhere are educated on autism traits, perhaps individuals like Troy, a 17-year-old from the Bronx, won’t have to go through such a traumatizing experience. When two police officers in the Bronx saw Troy (who has autism) leaning against a car outside his house, they began questioning him. It quickly escalated, culminating in the officers pinning Troy to the ground, ramming his face into the sidewalk, cuffing him, and dragging him to their car, where they drove him to the police station.

Though Troy could communicate verbally, he was uncomfortable making eye contact, and his mother thinks this may have contributed to the cops’ suspicions. We say “think” because Troy was released without charges after an hour, and without any reasonable explanation for his arrest in the first place. The only reason given? One of the cops “feared for his life.” A lawsuit is currently pending against the NYPD.

Troy’s mother has since taught Troy to raise his hands in the air to show he’s not a threat if he is ever again approached by a police officer. Cultivating habits like this can help ease high-tension situations with law enforcement, and is something that all parents should endeavor to teach their kids, whether neurotypical or on the spectrum — but it’s an obvious and sobering fact that cops and other first responders nationwide need more training on what autism spectrum disorder is, and how to handle a situation involving someone with ASD. Rob Zink is a champion of that effort, and we can all push for that type of police education to be mandatory in every city and state.

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