Interdisciplinary solution: Educating future law enforcement

  • BY Cal State East Bay
  • May 13, 2021

According to the Autism Society of America, approximately one in five young adults with autism spectrum disorder will interact with a police officer before the age of 21. These interactions often lead to more injuries and fatalities within this vulnerable population, largely due to lack of awareness and the improper techniques which escalate interactions and often lead to excessive use of force. 

“Last year, several instances of police brutality occurred that brought to light the increased risk that individuals with autism may face in interactions with law enforcement,” said Shubha Kashinath, associate professor and chair of the Department of Speech, Language, andHearing Sciences. “We wanted to put our heads together to create resources that would help avoid such heartbreak. And we wanted to ensure that individuals with autism were part of the planning, creation, and dissemination of these resources. We believe strongly in the motto, ‘Nothing about us without us.”’ 

Ian Woodworth, an autistic student at Cal State East Bay agrees, “People with autism and our allies are acutely aware of the higher risk an individual with autism has in certain situations. Those increase ever-present difficulties for the individual with autism to try to cope and to communicate if possible. So there is a level of increased fear.”  

Aware of the statistics and the experience shared by individuals with autism, Kashinath, along with Professor of Criminal Justice Silvina Ituarte and three students, sought a solution. But first they had to find out how deep the problem was — starting in the classroom. Based on survey responses from criminal justice students, many indicated a lack of understanding as to why knowledge about autism is important in the field. 

“No two people with autism are the same,” said Emily Wirth, a graduate student in special education. “People all react differently. In individuals with autism, they often have difficulty with communication, ‘typical’ social interactions, and sensory overload. It is important to note that just because someone seems like they are ignoring you, or acting differently than you, it does not mean that they are trying to ignore you or act differently. Most people need time, consideration and calm environments to be able to have a good interaction with anyone — people with autism might need slightly more consideration than others.”

The group developed a training, designed for criminal justice students, that explores autism and provides tips for improving communication with individuals who have autism during stressful or crisis situations. The training included information on understanding autism, responding to an autistic person’s  behaviors and using de-escalation communication strategies. Students also had an opportunity to experience what sensory overload may feel like so that they are better able to understand how an individual with autism in a crisis may struggle.

Woodworth, an autistic adult and undergraduate student majoring in environmental sciences, was also part of the group and was able to share his experiences and inform students in the training about strategies that work well with him while still reinforcing that no two individuals with autism are exactly the same. More importantly, he was able to convey that first responders will need to attempt multiple strategies of communication to identify how to best communicate with the individual in each encounter unless they already know the person. Organizers hope these students will graduate and take these skills into the communities they work in.    

“We hope that by holding this initial training, we will be able to get the ball rolling, sharing information and getting those in the criminal justice field to start thinking about the people they come across,” said Ogechi Okeke, a graduate student in speech, language, and hearing sciences.   

Creators of the project say this is just the beginning. They hope to expand it to future cohorts of students as well as professionals currently involved in the justice and social service fields. 

“We believe that with more information and better training, first responders and other professionals can be better equipped to handle difficult situations and deescalate interactions that often begin with miscommunication and incorrect assumptions,” Ituarte said.