9 Potentially Life-Saving Facts About Autism For Judges, Law Enforcement & Court Personnel

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As the prevalence of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) continues to rise, so will the number of interactions with judges, law enforcement, and court personnel.

Not because they will necessarily commit crimes, but simply as a reflection of how society works — we all interact with these people from time-to-time. Autistic people are no different in that way, but their experiences with these institutions may be very different. 

With this in mind, there are things that people in positions of authority must understand in order to make more effective decisions related to Autistic individuals — whether they are identified as a victim, witness, or alleged suspects. 

Understanding the general features of ASD can help people in positions of power relate better to Autistic people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of every 54 children and 2.21 percent of all adults in the United States are living with ASD in 2019.

This rise has sparked an increase in the number of cases brought before the court involving an individual with ASD. 

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Here are 9 facts about autism that can help judges, law enforcement, and court personnel.

1. An Autistic person may make little or no eye contact with you.

In most cases, eye contact is expected in a face-to-face conversation. The eyes express how you feel. The listener can interpret your feelings through your eyes.

Eye contact may be different for Autistic individuals, who often tend to avoid eye contact while speaking or listening. They may close their eyes completely, look away, or focus on the other’s mouth, glasses, or body parts while speaking. 

When an individual with ASD is before the court or interacting with a first responder, their lack of eye contact is often perceived as being disrespectful, rude, dishonest, or indifferent to the situation.

This assumption is often incorrect. 

Instead, the avoidance of eye contact is a coping skill used to decrease the intense anxiety and the unpleasant sensations experienced with direct eye gaze. 

Research supports this theory and has identified that for some individuals on the spectrum, an imbalance occurs between the brain's excitatory and inhibitory signaling networks while perceiving a face. 

Demanding eye contact from an Autistic individual may increase anxiety and shut down communication. 

Therefore, when you're interacting with an individual with ASD, try focusing on their level of communication rather than their level of eye contact. 

Ask yourself: Is the individual able to listen and comprehend what you are saying? Are they answering questions and responding verbally, in writing or otherwise?

Focusing on how effectively one is able to engage with you rather than their eye-contact ability will result in a better outcome. 

2. They may appear oppositional and defiant in an effort to avoid noise, light, and touch.

When an Autistic person is interacting with a peace officer or judge, they are expected to pay attention. However, some individuals with ASD have such difficulty with sensory stimulation in the environment, they seem to do the opposite. 

Instead of listening to the judge or officer, they avoid the interaction. They may cover their ears, attempt to leave the situation, and pull away if someone attempts to restrain them or control their behavior.

Why do they do this? Because their sensory system is "hyper-sensitive".  

A hyper-sensitive individual avoids stimuli and, in general, cannot tolerate sound, touch, light, smells, textures, heat, cold, or tastes in the environment. 

Their sensory experience can feel 100 times more intense than most individuals.

As a result, they attempt to decrease the overwhelming sensation by avoiding it.

They may avoid touch (pull back from another person), avoid sensations touching their skin (remove their clothes), avoid sounds (cover their ears), and or avoid light and interactions with others (hide under a table or leave the situation).   

When an Autistic individual seems over-stimulated, some interventions can help:

-Eliminate extra stimulation in the environment such as police radio chatter, barking dogs, other people talking, hallway noise, and bright lights. 

-If the situation allows, tell the person what's going to happen next in the situation so they are prepared and not alarmed with a new person, sound or transition.

-If possible, talk with the person about the need to handcuff them or restrain them. Talking them through this situation may help to keep them calm and not be surprised by your approach or touch.

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3. An Autistic person may appear oppositional or disinterested in an effort to stay alert and participate in the current situation. 

As counter-intuitive as it may be to neurotypical people, some individuals with ASD appear inattentive and disinterested in what another person has to say when they are actually trying to participate.

As the person is speaking, they may demonstrate repetitive movements and sounds that seem to interrupt the others and the process. 

This seemingly interruptive behavior may not be a sign of oppositional behavior. Instead, it may be a sign of a "hypo-sensitive" sensory system.

Individuals who are hypo-sensitive demonstrate repetitive movements and sounds in the form of pacing, rocking, flapping arms, humming, and/or other strange noises, in an effort to stimulate one’s nervous system, stay alert, and maintain attention.    

And because their sensory system is understimulated, they seek out stimulation. They touch objects (as they walk down a hallway or sit at a desk), run toward traffic or a train (not noticing danger), and/or hum, sing, or talk while someone is speaking.

In some cases, these attempts at seeking stimulation may be dangerous. As they seek out the sounds and movement of water, fire, and traffic, they are often unaware of the risks these situations hold such as drowning, burning, pain, getting hit by a car, or falling from a bridge. 

Stimulation-seeking behaviors that are performed in the courtroom or when interacting with a peace officer can seem disrespectful, oppositional, and inattentive. 

However, once it's understood that these are coping behaviors and not signs of disrespect, letting the behavior continue may help them cope. 

If the person continues to engage in conversation, allowing them to rock, flap arms, or otherwise move their body.

4. They may communicate in a manner that includes more or less details than typically expected.

Autistic individuals may have a different manner of speaking and difficulty with social interactions. There's variey in their communication styles but the awkwardness in ASD cause subtle problems with content.

Content is sometimes difficult because of awkwardness in the quantity of what they say. An individual with ASD may respond to a question with too many details that are not relevant to the topic of conversation or just the opposite. 

They may answer a question in a significantly vague manner that results in an unclear answer to the question. In either situation, this type of response is often misunderstood as avoidance or dishonesty.  

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5. After being rescued from a fire, they may make several attempts to run back into the burning building. 

Experiencing a fire at home, school, or anywhere is one of the most stressful situations anyone can experience.

For the individual with ASD, it's not only stressful, but the combination of heat, noise, yelling and smoke can completely confuse and overwhelm the sensory system. 

It's important for professionals involved to understand that the individual with ASD may try to initially hide instead of responding to calls from firefighters or to the fire alarm.

Once removed from the burning building, individuals with ADS may need to hear step-by-step details about what is happening. 

Most importantly, someone may need to supervise and secure the individual in a safe place, preventing them from returning back into the burning building. 

Why would they return to a home or school that is on fire? 

Individuals with ASD will be intensely focused on their need to feel safe and decrease their anxiety. 

Returning to a place they know and find comfort may override the fear and reality of the burning blaze. The individual may run back into the burning building to find their "safe spot."

6. They may communicate through 'scripting'.

In some social settings, some Autistic people may produce verbal statements or sounds that seem to serve no purpose or have no meaning in the current situation. 

Verbalizations can be in the form of reciting words from a movie script, passages from the Bible, or other phrases they have heard in the past. 

This behavior is a form of self-stimulatory or stereotyped behavior that occurs in an effort to self-regulate emotions and stimuli from the environment.  

Scripting may be misunderstood in the courtroom as speaking out of turn. 

This verbal behavior may be misinterpreted in the community as being intoxicated or hallucinating.  

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The individual may be scripting to calm themselves in that situation. They may be redirected to stop scripting and focus on the situation after being reassured by their lawyer or someone they know in the courtroom that they are safe. 

Asking them to stop scripting abruptly may cause an increase in anxiety. 

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7. They may be resistant or totally refuse to remove their headphones. 

Individuals with ASD often wear headphones to block noise from the environment. Many times, the headphones are not playing music or sound. 

Rather, they are turned off and cover the ears as a buffer between them and distracting noises in the environment. 

Blocking noise allows some Autistic individuals to more easily ignore distractions and focus on a conversation or the task at hand. 

Headphones also help the person to cope and remain calm in a situation. Refusing to remove their headphones while in a courtroom or while interacting with a first responder may not be a sign of refusing to cooperate, defiance or disrespect. 

Instead, headphones are a way to feel safe and cope with unpredictable sounds and voices in the environment. 

8. They may suddenly run away while you're engaging with them.

Most people are faced with everyday life situations that cause stress and anxiety. Some people cope well with situations such as running late or losing their keys. For them, dealing with these situations have little or no impact on them. Others, however, cope poorly. 

Deviations from what is expected cause mayhem resulting in emotional and physical discomfort. Social situations are unpredictable because people change their decisions, the topic, and their opinions about topics. 

For the person with ASD, this may cause anxiety. They have difficulty coping with the uneasiness of unfamiliar and unstructured social situations. 

Autistic people may have difficulty with inferences, reasoning, and processing the information they are given at one time. They tend to think in a linear and literal fashion and lack Theory of Mind Skills (ToM).

ToM skills allow an individual to understand what the other person may be thinking or feeling without them actually saying it.  

RELATED: 8 Subtle Signs You, Or Someone You Love, Has ASD

9. Non-verbal cues can be overwhelming.

Individuals who have the mental energy to deal with the anxiety of conversation can understand non-verbal cues such as gestures, eye contact, and tone of voice. They can use this information to make inferences and respond to the conversation in a reciprocal way. 

For an individual with ASD, this information may be overwhelming, confusing, and not structured enough to understand at that moment. The anxiety, although invisible to those involved, may build within the person with ASD and they suddenly feel overwhelmed. 

To cope, with the uneasiness of unfamiliar or unstructured situations, individuals with ASD may literally run, even mid-sentence during a conversation, regardless of where they are, as mentioned above. 

Their effort to escape may be misinterpreted as a way to avoid taking responsibility. 

To help an person with ASD in these stressful situations, start with the following tips:

-Be prepared. 

-Provide them time and space.

-Understand that conversation and social communication causes uncertainty and that the person with ASD may not have the mental energy to participate.

-Break down the process of what will happen into steps, so they know what to expect. 

Understanding common characteristics of individuals with ASD will allow for more effective communication, intervention, and decisions pertaining to individuals with ASD across all age, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. 

More importantly, understanding this population and common behavioral characteristics will result in fewer misunderstandings about the nexus between ASD and the role an individual may have played as a victim, witness, or alleged suspect of a crime.

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Nancy Musarra Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist from Ohio, USA. For support, questions, or information about workshops, her books, or first responder training, visit her website or contact Dr. Musarra at nancy@drnancymusarra.com.