9 Common Traits of Autism SROs Should Know to Foster Positive Student Interactions
Common characteristics for individuals with autism include lack of eye contact, repetitive actions, and sensory issues, among others.
Editor’s Note: With April being Autism Awareness Month, we thought we’d re-share this excellent 2021 article from Stephen Bjes, a former SRO who has deep knowledge and experience effectively working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and developmental disabilities. This article is a must-read for all law enforcement and security personnel who encounter students, patients and the general public.
Autism, often referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges in communicating and interacting with others. ASD affects an estimated one in 54 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Autism is often considered a “hidden disability,” meaning it may not be physically obvious. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a unique set of strengths and challenges. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and no two individuals with autism are identical in how their characteristics are presented.
That being said, there are some common traits often exhibited by individuals with autism that can help those in charge of school safety, particularly school resource officers (SROs), assess a situation involving a student with autism, and then respond accordingly to ensure a calm and productive interaction.
The following information was pulled from a handout distributed by Sergeant Stefan Bjes, Founder and CEO, Blue Line Spectrum Safety, during Campus Safety’s April GroupProject, “Interacting with Students with Autism: Tips and Strategies for Law Enforcement and Security Professionals.“
Common Characteristics of People with Autism
- Lack of eye contact
- Making eye contact can be difficult for people with autism and is one of the easiest behaviors to identify. During an interaction, a person with autism may look in the opposite direction, look through their peripheral vision, cover their eyes or simply refuse to visually engage with the person interacting with them.
- Lack of communication
- A high percentage of persons with autism are non-verbal or have limited verbal skills, but that doesn’t mean they can’t understand basic language. Individuals with autism may “script,” meaning they will recite lines from books, movies or videos during a conversation. They may also repeat back precisely what is said to them, which is a phenomenon called Echolalia.
- Repetitive actions
- For persons with autism, routines are everything. They may include wearing specific clothing, taking a particular route, and even saying things in a very particular manner.
- Self-stimulatory behavior, often referred to as “stimming,” refers to repetitive actions such as hand flapping, rocking, spinning, or humming. These behaviors are used as calming techniques and to regulate their body.
- Sensory issues
- Individuals with autism may be hypertensive (over) or hyposensitive (under) to certain senses. Fear of loud noises, bright lights and an aversion to touch are some of the most common sensory issues associated with autism.
- Lack of sense of danger
- Individuals with autism may be unable to understand the dangers of a situation. A person with autism may be found standing in the middle of traffic or entering a body of water without the ability to swim, for example.
- Meltdowns are not temper tantrums like those of neurotypical children. Meltdowns are usually triggered by overstimulation or the inability to communicate certain needs. Meltdowns may include aggressive behavior, screaming, headbanging and biting. The duration of a meltdown can range from a few minutes to over an hour.
- Elopement is wandering away from a secure setting and may be a response to overstimulation — think “fight” in “fight or flight” or the pursuit of some goal. In cases of elopement, first responders must treat these as critical incidents and utilize all available resources to locate the person as quickly as possible.
- Personal boundaries
- A person with autism may not understand personal boundaries. They may stand too close or attempt to touch first responder equipment. For law enforcement officers, this can be seen as a threat.
Effective Response Strategies
Whether in an emergency situation or just an everyday setting, having a toolbox for how to interact with and respond to students with autism will go a long way in ensuring they both feel safe and are safe. Although these response strategies are geared towards law enforcement and security professionals, many of these tips would be useful for any school employee interacting with a student with autism.
- Listen. If there are people around who know the person, listen to what they tell you. They may have important information about the person, such as they are non-verbal or are easily overwhelmed by certain situations.
- Calm brings calm. If you approach the person calmly, use a calm voice and reassure them that you are there to help, they will model what they see and begin to de-escalate.
- Use clear, concise, literal commands. Avoid repeatedly asking the same questions. It often takes a person with autism longer to process what you are saying. Ask a question and allow 10-15 seconds for them to respond. Try a “first/then” approach — i.e. first, I need you to stand up, then we can walk to my car. They may not understand metaphors or sarcasm so use literal commands. Tell them what you are doing. Be specific. For example, “I am going to check your pockets” versus “I am going to pat you down.”
- Avoid touching, if possible. A person with autism may be hypersensitive to even the slightest touch. This may create a fight or flight response. If the situation dictates that you must touch them, warm them that you are going to touch them.
- Reduce overstimulation. Turn off lights and sirens, turn down your radio and manage your back-up officers. Limit the number of people interacting with the person.
- Do not interfere with stimming. Stimming is a form of self-regulation. If they are stimming and it is not an officer safety concern, allow them to continue. This includes allowing the person to pace.
- Seek alternative forms of communication. Many people with autism utilize alternative forms of communication, such as an iPad, American Sign Language, or picture exchange cards (PECS). Police departments can seek assistance from their local school districts in designing PECS cards related to law enforcement.
- Create a special needs registry. Registering special needs citizens with their local police department provides vital information to responding officers before arriving. Officers can be given information such as diagnosis, de-escalation strategies, or a person’s favorite places (in cases of elopement), which can lead to a more safe and positive interaction.
- Seek training. Not all states mandate training regarding autism. We would never send our officers into a deadly force incident without proper training, so why would we send them to calls with our most vulnerable citizens without proper training?
Here is an additional resource for creating emergency plans for students with disabilities, including those with autism.
Stephen Bjes is founder and CEO of Blue Line Spectrum Safety LLC-Providing First Responders with Training Regarding Autism and Developmental Disabilities.
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