Helping Autistic Teens and Police Officers Avoid Negative Encounters

Autism is not a life-threatening diagnosis, but when law enforcement officers unknowingly encounter a person with autism, they can confuse the behaviors associated with autism with non-compliance, and the results can be tragically fatal.  In 2016, mental health therapist Charles Kinsey was shot in the leg by a police officer after trying to intervene during an officer patrol encounter with one of his autistic patients. The incident made national headlines, and the news shocked and horrified speech language pathologist Dr. Pamela Wiley.

Dr. Wiley has been working with children and young adults with autism since before autism was a widely accepted diagnosis.  In 1979, Dr. Wiley established The Wiley Center to work with underserved children in the Los Angeles area. “In the late nineties they started putting more focus on kids with autism,” she says, “but they didn’t have the label for it back then, and I ended up working with kids that today I know have autism.” It means Dr. Wiley has treated generations of autistic children into adulthood.

A primary goal of The Wiley Center is to prepare children with autism to realize their full potential and become independent adults. That means driving. “That’s kind of scary,” Dr. Wiley says, “because if you’re not prepared to deal with the police, an officer encounter can end in tragedy.”

In the wake of the Charles Kinsey shooting, Dr. Wiley was invited to participate in a panel discussion about the dangerous potential of police interactions with young people on the spectrum. The panel was moderated by actress Holly Robinson Pete, whose autistic son was Dr. Wiley’s patient. Pete also invited Stan Campbell, a retired Lieutenant from the Oklahoma Police Department. Stan’s autistic nephew was also one of Dr. Wiley’s patients.

Dr. Wiley admits that, at first, she was skeptical of police officers. As a Black woman working with minority children in Los Angeles, she was aware that many of her patients had had negative interactions with law enforcement – in fact, she had endured negative encounters herself. As a retired Black police officer, Stan was able to relate to her concerns but also explain law enforcement from the officer’s point of view. “I had to kind of explain the human side of policing,” Stan says.

“That opened my mind,” Dr. Wiley says. “He said, ‘We have families. We’re risking our lives. We want to go home safe, too.’” Immediately, Stan and Dr. Wiley recognized a need to educate police officers about how to identify and interact with people on the autism spectrum, and they knew they needed to help young people with autism understand how to interact with police. Together, they founded Spectrum Shield, a program where young autistic adults and active law enforcement officers spend three days and two nights on a ranch north of Los Angeles where they learn about one another and participate in simulated police encounters.

Right away, they learned how little things can have a big impact on a police encounter. Stan recalls instructing one of the participants to “put your hands on the dash.” He wouldn’t do it. “He keeps grabbing the door handle like he’s about to get out,” Stan says, “and I’m like ‘Young man, that will get you killed.’” Then Dr. Wiley stepped in and said, “He doesn’t know what the dashboard is.” It was a perfect example of how a single miscue could lead to tragedy.

Following the simulated encounters, Stan breaks down the lessons with both the young participants and the police officers. Much of the time spent during the Spectrum Shield retreat involves the officers and the young people engaging in fellowship and getting to know and trust one another. Dr. Wiley notes that autism represents itself differently with every patient, so it’s impossible to come up with a definitive list of defining behaviors, but when you spend time with people with autism, you become adept at recognizing the types of behaviors that are consistent with autism.

Dr. Wiley says, “More programs like this need to be duplicated and developed because everybody wants to save lives. Police want to save lives, and of course, all the parents want to save lives. So there needs to be more training – whether you’re a speech pathologist, if you’re a behavior and interventionist – if you have access to families and kids, there needs to be comprehensive training that covers these issues.”

Stan notes that, of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, only a fraction have programs to educate officers regarding how to identify and interact with people with autism. Many departments that do have programs in place rely on outreach with parents of autistic children – kids who are often deep on the spectrum and whose autistic behavior is self-evident. Autism is harder to spot in people that demonstrate milder behaviors. Dr. Wiley says, “It’s not the kid that looks like he has autism. Our kids are cool, handsome kids. On the surface, they’re going to look just like everybody else.  When this kid does the opposite of what you want him to do, you’re not going to know it’s because he didn’t process information properly.”

Both Stan and Dr. Wiley stress that any law enforcement agency working to create autism programs should include guidance from an expert in the field. They also stress that parents of autistic children and young adults with autism should not shy away from embracing a diagnosis of autism so that they can learn to mitigate potentially negative encounters. Dr. Wiley says, “We’ve worked with our kids in such a way that we talk about autism as a label that doesn’t define your potential. So it’s not a curse. It’s nothing to be embarrassed of.”

Dr. Wiley creates an “autism disclosure card” for her patients when they are ready to start interacting independently in the world. “It simply says, ‘I have autism,’ and on the backside, we write a couple of things about autism and what their autism might look like.” It’s a simple tool that has produced positive real-world results. A graduate of the Spectrum Shield program was out with a friend who also had autism. The friend was driving and was stopped by the police. The interaction started going sideways, and the driver was about to become verbally uncooperative. That’s when the Spectrum Shield graduate intervened, he showed his autism disclosure card, explained that his friend had autism, and it reset the entire interaction, and with all parties understanding each other, the encounter ended without incident.

Misunderstandings between citizens and police can happen even when the citizen is not autistic. Lieutenant Stan has taken the lessons he and Dr. Wiley have learned from Spectrum Shield and incorporated them into D.O.P.E. the Movement, an initiative designed to help citizens and law enforcement officers alike to learn how to De-escalate Officer Patrol Encounters. Stan says in nearly all police encounters, “You’ll be safe if you keep the officer safe.” The key is for both sides of the encounter to communicate slowly and calmly and to recognize the context of an encounter. Dr. Wiley says, “In the absence of meaningful contact, we rely on stereotypes.” The goal of both Spectrum Shield and D.O.P.E. the Movement is to empower citizens and police to establish “meaningful contact” during a patrol encounter, and to make sure everyone, in the end, goes home safely to the ones they love. Click here for more on Spectrum Shield.



Shawn Vincent is a litigation consultant who helps select

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