Interacting with Autism: A School Resource Officer Approach
School police officers must be able to recognize traits associated with autism, as well as adopt strategies that can foster positive interactions with students with special needs.
Numerous incidents of challenging/negative interactions between school resource officers (SROs) or school security personnel and children with special needs have been well publicized. These negative interactions, among other incidents, have fueled proposed legislation to remove law enforcement from schools. In the era of crisis intervention, we need to take steps to ensure that SROs are appropriately trained so they have de-escalation techniques that foster positive encounters with students with special needs. School administrators and law enforcement agencies can work cohesively together to ensure positive outcomes for these interactions.
This article is intended to help SROs and school security personnel recognize the characteristics associated with autism and understand strategies for achieving positive outcomes during their dealings with students with autism.
What Autism Spectrum Disorder Looks Like
Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological disorder that impairs communication, behavior and social interactions. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and no two individuals with autism are identical in how they show their characteristics of autism. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism occurs in one in 54 children. This number has increased 178% since 2000. This growing number means that SROs will undoubtedly encounter individuals with autism while carrying out their regular job responsibilities within schools.
Autism effects three main areas in children and young adults. These areas include communication, behavior and social interactions.
In addition, children and adults with autism may exhibit unusual or repetitive mannerisms that are often called “stimming.” Stimming may include hand flapping, rocking back and forth, pacing, tapping of the ears, moving hands in front of the face while tracking with peripheral vision and repeated vocalizations. These behaviors may increase when the person is upset, frustrated, scared or anxious. Stimming is a form of self-regulation, and most of the time it is not harmful to a person or others. For these reasons, unless the behavior presents a risk, it is better to avoid trying to stop these (stimming) behaviors.
Individuals with autism may be hyper-sensitive (over) or hypo-sensitive (under) to sensory input. This means they may react differently to certain environmental factors, such as lights, sounds, and smells. For some people with ASD, these factors may be overwhelming or even painful and may lead to “sensory overload.” When this occurs, it may lead to self-injurious or aggressive behavior, also known as a “meltdown.” Meltdowns are not temper tantrums, like those of neurotypical children. Meltdowns are usually triggered by overstimulation or the inability to communicate or have certain needs met. Meltdowns may include aggressive behavior, screaming, head banging and biting. The duration of a meltdown can range from a few minutes to over an hour.
How SROs Should Respond to Individuals with ASD
When SROs or school security personnel become involved or are summoned in “meltdown” situation, there are some important things to remember. The student may defensively strike out, grab at the officer’s equipment, run away or be unresponsive to commands. During these incidents, SROs and school staff should expect the interaction to be frantic and challenging. They should not expect the student to be well-mannered or obedient as there may be a total loss of behavioral control. What is critical for SROs to understand is that they should not take the behaviors personally and remind themselves that autism is the cause of the challenging behavior. All behavior is a form of communication. Understanding this can fend off frustration with the student.
An SRO may be asked to respond to a variety of situations involving students on campus. When responding to situations for students with autism, officers must strive to de-escalate the situation and prevent additional stressors. This approach may be different from the usual tactics used by an officer. The goal is to use strategies that reduce fear and anxiety for the student.
When responding to situations where aggressive behavior is present, approaching slowly and calmly is vital. An important thing to remember is that students with autism are sensitive to even the slightest touch. Therefore “going hands on” should be a last resort. If the behaviors are occurring within a classroom, consider moving the other students and non-essential staff out of the classroom. Contain the student environmentally rather than through physical force. If the student is in a setting that is safe and there is little risk of harm, establish a safe area and utilize time and distance. Physical force may trigger a “fight or flight” response and will only add additional stress to the student and staff involved.
SROs should model desired behavior. This may include physically demonstrating what you want someone to do. This includes standing up, sitting down, walking into class or demonstrating a calm demeanor. The demeanor of the officer can significantly influence a positive or negative response from the student. It is important to remember that calm brings calm. If the student with ASD is demonstrating negative behavior, such as screaming, knocking items over, or banging on things, it should be ignored, when safe to do so. If an officer acknowledges the negative behavior it serves as reinforcement and the behavior will continue.
Using de-escalation strategies can reduce the duration and intensity of a “meltdown” associated with autism. The reduction of over stimulation will also reduce the duration and intensity of the problematic behavior. Officers should reduce lighting, eliminate loud noise, limit the number of individuals interacting with the student, and use preferred calming strategies. These may include noise cancelling headphones, weighted items for deep pressure (like a vest, blanket or bean bag chair), calm breathing exercises (I use smell the birthday cake, blow out the candles), and using different fidgets such as chew toys, fidget boxes or other items the student prefers. Utilizing these strategies as well as different resources can de-escalate certain situations and create positive relationships at school with students.
Act Quickly When Students with Autism Wander or Elope
SROs may also be asked to assist with a special needs student who has been reported missing from the school. A significant portion of those with autism will wander or elope from secure settings. Elopement may be a response to overstimulation (Think “flight” in “fight or flight”) or the pursuit of some goal. In cases of elopement from a school setting, campus staff must treat these as critical incidents and utilize all available resources to locate the person as quickly as possible. Failure to do so may result in tragic consequences.
In goal-directed wandering a student with autism may leave a safe environment is an attempt to locate something of interest. A place of interest may include water, active roadways, train tracks or construction sites. Upon learning this, SROs and school staff must quickly gather information about why the child may have wandered — obtaining a list of favorite places/interests is vital. Interviewing parents, caregivers and others who may know the student well is critical as they may know about the person’s activities, behaviors and interests, both past and present.
Many Individuals with ASD Have Difficulty Communicating
A significant number of people with autism have impairments in communication. They may have limited verbal ability or be unable to speak at all. Autism affects a person’s receptive and expressive language.
Receptive language is the ability to understand words and language and is imperative in order to communicate successfully. Individuals with autism who have difficulties with comprehension may find it challenging to follow instructions and might not respond appropriately to questions or requests.
Expressive language has to do with functional communication (how you communicate with others). Expressive language or communication may be accomplished through verbal language, sign language, gestures or other forms of alternative communication.
In addition to language deficiencies, a major characteristic associated with autism is difficulty expressing emotion as well as difficulty in using AND understanding non-verbal social communication. (Body language, facial expressions, eye contact, gestures and tone of voice/intonation).
Echolalia is the repetition of phrases or words and can be a characteristic of communication in people with ASD. Immediate echolalia is when the person with ASD repeats back something they immediately heard.
An example would be an officer asking someone with ASD “Are you hurt?” and the person would respond with “You are hurt.” In this instance, the person may actually be hurt but may not have the ability to respond with an appropriate response like, “Yes, I am hurt.”
Scripting is where a person with ASD memorizes phrases from books, movies or videos. Those phrases are repeated after a period of time following the hearing of a phrase. The recited phrase may or may not be appropriate for the situation.
In some instances, echolalia and scripting may have a purpose. It is important to listen to what is being said. It may give an officer some insight into what the person is thinking or feeling. When you combine all of this with the presence of an SRO during a stressful situation, communicating may be challenging.
Try These Communication Techniques with Non-Verbal Individuals
It’s always important to remember that no two individuals with ASD are the same. A strategy that works for one, might not work for another. But there are some tested techniques SROs can use to attempt communication with someone who is non-verbal. Just because someone is non-verbal does not mean they don’t understand or comprehend what someone is saying to them.
One of the first things the officer should do is state the obvious. Tell them who you are and what you are there to do. An individual with ASD may not understand the meaning behind our uniform or badge. SROs should always address the person as they would anyone else. Do not assume that the person with whom you are interacting with has a limited cognitive ability. They might be able to understand every word that is being said but may have difficulty in responding verbally.
The SRO should speak in direct short phrases such as “stand-up”, “sit down” or “stay right here.” Speak in a calm, quiet voice and provide only one command at a time.
Individuals with autism are very literal thinkers; therefore, officers should refrain from using slang, metaphors or abstract language. For example, if you ask someone with ASD to “take a seat” they may actually pick up the chair and try to walk away with it.
Another verbal strategy is “first, then, praise.” An example of this would be “first we are going to stand-up, and then we will walk to class.” Once a request is completed, verbal praise should be given. For example: “Great job standing-up and walking into class.”
If the individual is able to speak, but fails to answer questions, try utilizing fill-in-the-blank questions. “Your name is?” “Your address is?” It is easier to provide a one-word responses as opposed to a complete sentence.
Individuals with ASD are all about routines and the “rules.” This can be used to an officer’s advantage by saying, “the rules say you need to walk with me.” Often, including the phrase “the rules” will get them to successfully comply.
Assistive Communication Devices Might Help
There are many types of assistive communication devices available that are designed to help children and adults with ASD who struggle to communicate. The simplest form of a no-tech assistive device is pencil and paper or a dry erase board/marker. This can be used to communicate through written words or pictures. The dry erase board can also act as a calming strategy if the student likes to draw or doodle on the board. SROs should also consider using Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) cards. These contain visuals of particular actions or requests and can be designed to focus on police-related interactions. There are also many apps that can be downloaded directly to your phone or tablet that provide different types of visuals.
If the student doesn’t respond immediately to your question, do not assume they haven’t heard or understood what was said. Students with ASD sometimes need a little more time to absorb and process information before giving their response. It may take 10-15 seconds for the student with ASD to respond to commands or questions being asked. Repeating the question every few seconds to force a response or constant talking can lead to challenging behaviors as the person may become frustrated by being overwhelmed with verbal information. Provide wait time for a response, even if it feels uncomfortably long.
Words such as “not now,” “no” and “stop” can act as triggers for challenging behavior in people with ASD. When this happens, it is necessary to find positive statements that redirect the student’s behavior. For example, the command “stop hitting” may be replaced with “let’s use nice hands”.
Some children and adults with autism may experience some challenges with social interactions. As a result, they may avoid social interactions even to express their needs. Some other social interaction difficulties may be lack of eye contact, lack of reciprocal conversations and lack of social boundaries. It is important to understand that these actions are not meant to be disrespectful or disobedient.
All SROs & School Security Staff Should Learn About Autism
Understanding how autism affects children and young adults is essential for SROs and school security personnel so they can better serve their special needs students. SROs have many roles within their job duties on campus. This includes ensuring the school and all children within it are safe; managing crisis situations and ensuring you are familiar with all aspects of the school day (transitions/arrival/dismissal etc.). The goal is to create partnerships between the community, parents and school staff to maintain a safe learning environment.
Interacting with students with autism can be a challenge for even the most experienced veteran SRO. Officers and school security personnel across the country need to receive autism training and establish positive relationships with the special needs community.
SROs are the first line in establishing positive relationship with special needs students. Officers should make time each day to interact with their special needs students. This can be done through reading to the class, having lunch with the students, and sharing department resources and programs with families of students with special needs.
By adopting a proactive approach, schools and police departments can help keep this vulnerable population safe, have more positive interactions and help keep themselves and their respective departments and school districts safe from possible civil liability.
Sergeant Stefan Bjes has served over 20 years with a suburban police department in Illinois. He is a state-certified instructor who focuses on teaching law enforcement how to interact with individuals with developmental/intellectual disabilities, specifically autism. He is an approved CIT instructor with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. He is also the owner of Blue Line Spectrum Safety (www.bluelinespectrumsafety.com), which specializes in First Responder training regarding autism and developmental disabilities. As the father of two sons with autism, Stefan has extensive experience, through his personal and professional life, in interacting with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
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