As a policeman, I’ve been in knock-down, wrestle-to-the-ground tussles with an autistic child. My blue uniform absorbed and masked the tears of family members emoting despair due to their loved one’s existence being held-hostage by autism.
I’ve assessed the damaged property caused by an autistic child’s tirade that led to a tornado-like episode of destructive behavior; concave walls replaced framed photos. I also grappled with the inexplicable autism-related trait known as self-injurious behavior (SIB), where my assistance was needed, despite protective headgear and Posey mitts, to help defray chronic blows to head and face. I responded to hospital calls stemming from an autistic child’s self-inflicted bone breakage (stomping concrete, dropping to the ground, head-butting walls, punching tabletops). I conferred with state and/or county Child Protective Services investigators who were doing their job while I did mine.
The doc furrowed his brow and stared at me, struck by the unanticipated actions of the two-minute-old assailant.
All these things happened in my home — because that child is mine.
I’m a retired policeman whose daughter is categorically classified as intensely autistic, to include self-injurious behavior that is exacerbated by a non-verbal nature. Synonymously, each call involving an autistic child in my police career was met with an odd fusion of vexation and comprehension.
Autism Spectrum Disorder. By now, most of us have heard about autism — its evolution, the statistical data, and the levels of autism spectrum disorder that delineate capabilities to either a high- or a low-functioning degree.
Parents know their child with autism can often definably overwhelm the word challenges. The comparisons between neuro-typical (non-autism folks) and those diagnosed with autism draw parallels as well as disparities. Nevertheless, parents of people diagnosed with autism sometimes require police assistance for events that stem from their child’s behavioral anomalies. My household had that exact triad equating to real-life experience in all three dimensions.
The Beginning. A so-called Y2K baby, Haille Marie was born via Cesarean section, and made her debut highly memorable. As she was being lifted from the womb, she chomped down on the obstetrician’s index finger. Typically, newborn babies do not possess the strength to do that. Shocked, the doctor yelped and clipped his words while Haille did not even cry. The doc furrowed his brow and stared at me, struck by the unanticipated actions of the two-minute-old assailant.
Now that the seven-pound self-declared boss had proclaimed her reign over the operating room, the instinctual and perfunctory new-life adoration began, despite the unorthodox exclamation point made upon her arrival. Within minutes of being cleaned up and swaddled in her first pink baby blanket, with what I describe as “bumble bee eyes,” Haille stared at the intense, operating-room surgical lights as if mesmerized, unblinking. This is uncharacteristic for a newborn; untested eyes and their sensitivities to light universally result in closed lids. But Haille fixated on the illumination as if a tractor-beam beckoned her gaze.
After several minutes of this, she turned her gaze to me and stared with the alertness of a world-class chess champion. It moved me, and I filed it away with unclassified reasoning.
At this juncture, the obstetrician whose practice had been overseeing the pregnancy since the declaration of “You’re pregnant!” altered his expression. “The umbilical cord was kinda wrapped around her neck, but I was able to lift it without resistance,” he uttered meekly. There it was, even if we didn’t know what “it” was at that time. That detail haunts me unrelentingly. No sonogram ever detected such a concern, so somewhere in the brief window of time between the last sonogram and wheeling to the labor and delivery room, a twist transpired. In retrospect, this may have been the first indicator that Haille would not ever sit still for long (actions any cop may define as “non-compliant” and “resisting/obstructing”).
Development (or Lack Thereof). The first days, weeks, and months elapsed as Haille continued to miss important developmental milestones. “Uh-oh” moments became the norm; increasing dismay, worry, angst, and a host of other discomfiting human emotions came up frequently, all colliding with the glee of a beautiful new baby girl whose miracle of life seemed heaped with challenge and dubious destiny.
Medical professionals back then embraced the national “medical standard” of not investigating suspicions of autism until age two. There were too many other disorders that mimicked autism, clinicians explained, so the wiggle room was a safety net of sorts. That waiting period has since been cut in half; investigations of potential autism commence at age one, so we lost one full year of possible resolve — or at least 365 days of rehabilitation. “The sooner the better” is the current school of thought.
Nevertheless, once she turned two, a three-hour examination by a pediatric neurologist culminated in three words. “She has autism.”
Unaware of the brewing layers of autism, adequate preparation was denied; Haille never developed verbal communication (remains non-verbal as I write this piece), does not write, requires guidance in all her needs, and tantrums when her lack of speech fails to achieve her real-time desires. The next layer, self-injury, showed-up like a phantom, as if someone toggled a switch and caused it to erupt. Since age five, any frustration culminates in self-abuse, predominantly strikes to the face and head. Haille’s cheekbones and chin have “permanent strawberries,” as clinicians put it.
Naturally, as a policeman, I knew well the perceptions held by members of society, especially those charged with child welfare aspects. Teachers and hospital personnel contacted CPS investigators several times when the newest self-inflicted marks were observed. The laws are expressly clear in all states; any inkling of suspected abuse must be reported. Having participated in countless child abuse investigations myself, I respected the responding authorities who showed up and did their job. Awkward, but this cop understood and reasoned with the ritualistic process in such matters. If autism allowed reasoning capacity, most of these words would not be applicable. Low-functioning autism disallows such features.
What universally allayed any suspicions? Actual observation by investigators always culminated in Haille’s self-hitting, right before their eyes due to her unfamiliarity with faces in the room. The fusion of self-injury serving as an indictment of my child’s life as well as another “Unsubstantiated” disposition by authorities remains a topical and subcutaneous scar. The pros/cons of such an unspeakable exhibition are a dynamic to be reckoned with in various ways.
Another trait in autistics, particularly those like Haille, is a tremendously high pain threshold. Broken bones caused by self-injury were discovered by a caretaker noticing swelling or bleeding. The resulting investigation by medical professionals would have been extremely painful for anyone else, yet she giggled throughout the whole incident. To a police officer in view of such an injury mixed with such contradictory emotions, vexation may set in. Additionally, the metabolism in some autistic individuals is so high that sedation for various medical procedures has no impact, six oft-used anesthetics which typically are successful on adults are like placebos for Haille, they do not even make her drowsy. We have learned that Propofol is the only sedative which works.
The abilities of our daughter seem superhuman at times; and if ever she had an interaction with police I can imagine that a cop who is untrained, unaware, or not indoctrinated in autism may perceive her as a threat, merely based on her many traits that are uncharacteristic for a child. These are largely unseen in public; parents of autistics experience these differences within the confines of their home. The unruliness is overwhelming; only patience, time, and endurance help settle outbursts.
We have been asked to depart church functions. School displacement also became a relative concern.
Behaviorally, Haille has experienced an increase in self-injury intensity through subsequent years, coupled with outbursts of guttural emissions which some find disturbing. We have been asked to depart church functions. School displacement also became a relative concern, administrators citing Haille was “too aggressive” and “too disruptive to the other children and teachers” (in special needs classrooms).
Sadly, politics and policy bobbled the plight of a child. Indubitably behind the eight ball and racked by a system which imposed policies contrary to the needs of the autism demographic, I used my law enforcement objectivity and reasoning and constitutional knowledge-base to try to find a solution. On Haille’s behalf, I argued her rights to a fair and equitable educational plan. That ride remains bumpy and laden with obstacles and impositions. Haille’s fight is my fight, and I am honored to lace up her gloves in pursuit of all things justice.
I have written tons of letters. I have attended meetings. I have employed advocacy and good-hearted folks who are professionally inclined to arbitrate on behalf of those in the autistic community. Along the way, I have networked with parents of children who have autism. Some of their sagas are heartbreaking and take your breath away. So, what did I do with all this complex stuff?
An Unexpected Consultancy. I was summoned by my police chief one afternoon and asked if I would be comfortable being interviewed by a group of University of South Florida-Tampa behavioral specialists who were conducting a research study, the results of which were to be compiled in a tri-fold brochure for dissemination to law enforcement agencies. Coordinated by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), the subject matter was entirely based on the recognition of autism-related nuances and the assessment of ASD variables, to enable critical thinking for cops to optimally handle potential encounters with individuals on the autism spectrum.
As a policeman and a parent of a child intensely afflicted with autism, I was honored to be considered for the role. Over the course of a few visits at USF, I answered questions and offered actual policeman and parent experiences that I considered to be pertinent and imperative to the objective. I conveyed actual circumstances experienced by various parents of autistic children who reached out to law enforcement for help. I had dealt with many of these cases, among cops in my agency, I was informally assigned as the go-to guy for distilling such calls for service.
I met many parents who clearly were indicating that they felt up against the ropes in terms of their child’s uncontrollable behavior stemming from autism. I was uniquely able to commiserate. As mentioned, my daughter was diagnosed with severe autism which brought along uninvited co-morbidity encompassing self-injury, bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorder, and chronic constipation. This bundle exacerbates any number of things and increases the fusillades of self-injury. Though ostensibly insurmountable, the cycle can be somewhat mitigated by using Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) concepts with painstaking consistency. Strides can be achieved.
I will now discuss some of the suggestions I provided for the specialists at USF.
Autism, Self-injurious Behavior, and Police Protocols. Frankly, no one knows concretely what compels anyone with autism to self-injure. However, one convincing correlate is what I described above; the non-verbal aspects conjure frustration which leads to self-hitting. Research scientists at the Autism Research Institute conducted studies and proffer theoretical frameworks designed to remotely comprehend this component exhibited by some (not all) folks with autism.
For non-verbal children with autism, one theory posited by neurological science (that is rather absurd-sounding) is that hitting areas of the head and face has a positive effect. How so? Striking the head (lobes) releases all-natural feel-good chemicals bio-generated by the brain. The premise is that a pain or ailment is bothersome and without verbal ability to solicit aid from external sources, hitting is the recourse to deal with whatever is problematic for/in that child. Chemicals wash over the person and ease physical and/or emotional burdens. This is an intriguing perspective!
As a policeman, I can see how a tactical flare may arise at the sight of a seemingly ornery, volatile and verbally non-responsive person.
As cited by researchers at the Autism Research Institute: “Beta-endorphins are endogenous opiate-like substances in the brain, and self-injury may increase the production and/or the release of endorphins. As a result, the individual experiences and anesthesia-like effect and, ostensibly, he/she does not feel any pain while engaging in the behavior (Sandman et al., 1983). Furthermore, the release of endorphins may provide the individual with a euphoric-like feeling. Support for this examination comes from the studies in which drugs that block the binding at opiate receptor sites (e.g., naltrexone and naloxone) can successfully reduce self-injury.”
Haille has been hitting herself since she was about five. Currently, her pharmacology includes Naltrexone, which seems to be abating self-abuse to some degree. The entire situation still befuddles and intrigues me, so I can see where it may raise the neck hair of cops when an encounter may evolve in which someone is aggressively acting out in inexplicable ways. To a cop’s trained eyes, the sight of self-injurious behavior equates to aggression, and indicates a person potentially stirring trouble. To a parent’s eyes, the trouble comes from anyone (including police officers) misinterpreting the circumstances behind their autistic child’s inexplicable behavior.
As a policeman, I can see how a tactical flare may arise at the sight of a seemingly ornery, volatile and verbally non-responsive person. Aggression coupled with non-compliance will always up the ante. There are so many different levels of autistic behavior, therefore, no one-size-fits-all solution is readily available. I realize that guessing games provide no comfort for police officers and parents. However, increased awareness and a broader breadth of information pertaining to autism can potentially aid decision making during moments of grey-area encounters. Without a personal bio and any definitive background (autism), police officials are placed in an untenable position to reason with nuances as well as maintain the safety of themselves and others. The adage you can’t help what you don’t know has applicability.
Super-Sensory Overload. One piece of knowledge that would assist police officers in their encounters with autistic individuals is that folks with autism have an unparalleled super-sensory capacity. Although it may seem advantageous to have sharp taste-buds (especially when sugar is upon the tongue), autistic people are addled with taste hypersensitivity which sometimes translates to assault-like behavior. Haille’s aggression spikes when a meal is before her, presumably from food elements such as sugars, sours, spices, and even textures. Knowing this potential can assist cops in identifying what, why, and how to react with enhanced understanding. Food and drink are often sent airborne via the hands of children with autism (beware the uniform), not with the intent of “throwing a deadly missile,” but as a reaction to the hypersensitivity that is signaling the brain to act-out in knee-jerk fashion. You won’t find that nugget in the police academy.
True Blue. Whether you view the Light It Up Blue campaign as pertinent to the cause for autism acceptance or The Thin Blue Line as emblematic of police fighting on fragile frontlines, both certainly have a voice in service to those whose voice may be hampered by one thing or another.
We cycle back to the formative years in which both Haille and myself were trying to mete out this new, confounding neuro-disorder which challenges those diagnosed, their parents, the police, and the triad thereof. In the battle-lines drawn by an autism diagnosis, Haille’s fight is woven within our fabric of daily living. In the throes of parenting a behaviorally burdened child, I frequently stop in awe. Haille is a beautiful daughter who confronts autism much like a warrior’s warrior.
To my police brothers and sisters working the streets and confronting unique challenges on a regular basis, I submit it is no easy feat to categorize someone as “autistic” and appropriately apply resource materials and specialized police training. Training materials help, but are not the cure-all. I encourage watching and/or reading all the material you can to get a deeper glimpse into the dynamics of autism. Stories depicting actual folks diagnosed with high-functioning autism exist; watch “The Accountant” played by Ben Affleck. Read material about noted autistic Temple Grandin, who went on to university study, acquired a PhD, wrote books, and became an inventor of animal husbandry products. Dan Aykroyd and a host of other high-profile celebrities are also high-functioning autistics, achieving stardom in their own right. Like most autistics, Aykroyd has obsessions; his two are ghosts and law enforcement (a police badge is in his pocket whenever he travels).
Learning about autism from those who have the neurodevelopmental disorder, like Carly Fleishmann, is best. Even though she was non-verbal and self-injurious, Carly co-authored a book with her father. After many years, Carly was able to overcome some of the constraints imposed by autism. She has since learned to communicate via a tablet whereby she types answers to questions received audibly. Like Haille, Carly has “high receptivity” and can hear everything quite well; verbalizing is the dilemma that causes frustration. To her credit (and because of her autism), Carly conceptualized and coined the phrase “audio-filing.” Her explanation to help us understand better is that autistics take everything they have ever heard and store it in memory banks, causing it to be so vivid years later that it is like it was overheard 12 minutes ago. That is a remarkable feat, considering the inability of some autistics to speak. Perhaps it is akin to blind folks whose lack of eyesight sharpens the other senses.
Understandable Risk of Escalation. To any cop, a seemingly non-responsive, non-compliant individual may not be ignoring your authority or commands. They may be unable to reply. This causes frustration which often culminates in self-aggression which could translate to a police officer reacting in ways prescribed by law and protocols which could cause a situation to escalate negatively.
Hands-on tactics may actually exacerbate the scenario; most people with autism do not like touch of any kind, even hugs, so a virtual stranger applying physical contact may generate resistance. At its core, autism is a social disorder in which those diagnosed are not anti-social but ill-equipped to sort through social contexts. Lack of eye contact? Don’t take it personally, it’s an autism trait. Seemingly unmoved by your presence? Don’t slouch in rejection, this too, is an autism dimension. Can you see where encounters with police officials can go awry, without blaming anyone involved?
Indictment upon anyone is useless, except where it belongs, autism and its mystique.
How can we expect police officers to adequately handle instances involving folks with autism when we hardly comprehend the disorder in its entirety? Not being up to date with regard to autism studies brings issues for cops when confrontations ensue. De-escalation techniques cops use are well-placed but may not be entirely adaptable to autism traits. This is shown by a mounting list of episodes in which cops have been accused of mishandling encounters involving people with autism, and it is hard testimony for a problem that is beckoning to be resolved. The scientific community is working feverishly to facilitate potential mechanisms to remedy the impasse between cops and autistics as well as to abate instances where diplomacy derails and physical entanglement ensues.
I believe we are in the same ballpark to help each other overcome and excel.
I don’t mean to make it seem as though cops are the only ones who struggle with knowing how to act when faced with an autistic person, as I’ve also witnessed nurses who were seemingly taken aback by Haille’s behavior.
Conversely, we’ve encountered some exceptionally compassionate practitioners who related well to Haille, reciprocally. Many other institutional agents other than cops can help themselves by analyzing autism studies that are evolving daily with theories to digest for the common good.
Akin to super-sensory perceptions of animals, autistic individuals have an acute detection of negative personas and react behaviorally when around a bad aura. It is usually in the eyes; Haille glares at people who seem to be giving off negative vibes. Respectfully speaking, the nature of police work means that officers may (understandably) have developed a set of certain precautionary features so that they are not perceived as Mr. Rogers, per se. I experienced this attribute as a cop myself. On many occasions, I’ve been sized-up and scrutinized before I even had a chance to speak.
Preconceived notions about cops come into play, yet most autistic folks do not possess the concept to readily identify and define police officers and their role. That same high-receptivity in hearing may also relate to perceptions with foundations in metaphysical realms whereby energy is signaled and found to be dissuasive.
Without excusing misbehavior, I read several studies denoting how those with autism lack intent to do harm and are feverishly eager to communicate, albeit in physically inappropriate ways. Legally speaking, intent is a huge factor in developing probable cause. Bias aside and connotations of sinning aside, it follows: “…for they know not what they do.” Therefore, mindfulness can help those who are policing (serving) this demographic. By and large, cops are dutifully determined and dedicated souls open to change, understanding, tactical applications, and philosophical variables. In various circumstances, awareness and education can help with assessments to accordingly remedy situations engendering police contact. I respect police efforts to examine catalysts to enable effective interactions with those diagnosed with autism due to no fault of their own.
I am still learning from a deeply autistic child, and I am therefore here to tell you it is absolutely a complex situation. Any police encounter can be vexing, and the mystique inherent in citizens with autism is atypical in terms of persona, as well as different in how to assess encounters involving those with this social disorder. Unwaveringly, as a policeman and as a parent, I stick with tried and true training, experiences, combined with the chronic dissection of autism studies, and the holy grail of gut instincts.
Without waxing feeble, I find some irony in that autistic children do well with weighted vests, helping them feel snug and secure, rather synonymous to cops wearing ballistic vests for their own protection. I believe we are in the same ballpark to help each other overcome and excel.
Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used with permission.