The next thing she remembers is one of the officers pulling her arms behind her back and putting handcuffs on her wrists. “He became exponentially more aggressive the moment I identified as autistic, which startled me,” she says. (The police report does not state that she disclosed her diagnosis.) Verburg says she recalls the officer saying, “I’m done explaining anything, we’re going in.”
Connor Leibel’s near-arrest in July 2017, which was widely publicized in the U.S. media, also escalated within a matter of minutes. Connor, who was 14 at the time, has autism and the intellectual ability of a 6-year-old. He was flicking and staring at a piece of string when a police officer approached him in a park in Buckeye, Arizona. A few minutes later, a family friend looking after Connor that day returned to the park to find the officer holding down the teenager’s lanky frame on the ground. In footage captured by the officer’s body camera, Connor tells the officer he is stimming; but later, the officer tells the family friend he thinks Connor has taken drugs. Connor was not charged, but he left the scene bruised and bleeding, with an ankle injury that required surgery six months later, his parents say. The Buckeye Police Department declined to comment on the incident.
An encounter with the police also turned violent for Reginald Latson, a young man with autism in Stafford County, Virginia. In May 2010, Latson, then 18, was waiting for the public library to open when a staff member at a neighboring elementary school called the police and reported that a crossing guard had spotted a young black man with a gun. When the responding police officer found Latson nearby and asked him to identify himself, Latson did not give his name. Latson fought with the officer and injured him, though it’s unclear how the fight began. Latson was convicted of assault, among other charges, and sentenced to two years in prison. The police never found a gun.
These stories all highlight a central predicament for people with autism: Some of the condition’s traits—from social anxiety and stimming to trouble with language and making eye contact—can resemble a police officer’s standard profile of a suspicious person. Add flashing lights, a shrill siren, or the blare of a bullhorn, and it can be paralyzing for someone with autism, who may have extreme sensitivity to light, sound, or touch. In the United States, many large police departments offer some form of training to help officers recognize and be sensitive to these differences. In many of those departments, however, the training is not mandated. And it doesn’t seem to be much better in other countries: A 2016 survey of 394 police officers in England and Wales found that only 37 percent had received any autism-specific training.
Just how frequently interactions between police and people with autism take place or turn violent is unknown. Few experts track rates of encounters, arrests or imprisonment of people with autism. In general, Americans with a disability are more likely to be arrested than those without. And anecdotal evidence suggests that for people with autism, this is a serious problem regardless of race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, or autism severity. As in the general public, men on the spectrum who are black or Latino, and those who have a history of aggression, may be particularly at risk of encounters with the police.