Will ID Cards and First Responder Training Protect People with Autism?

Healthcare, Safety

New York has introduced new legislation to provide free and optional ID cards for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Connecticut lawmakers have proposed a similar bill that would enable individuals with autism to receive a special driver’s license. The new laws alert law enforcement and first responders to the fact that someone has autism, but is legislation enough?

Not an entirely new idea

“Autism ID cards were first developed by private organizations in an attempt to compensate for lack of first responder training,” says attorney Joe Hoelscher, who sits on the board of the Starlite Autism Center. “They included instructions for law enforcement or descriptions of autistic behaviors to help first responders understand why someone on the spectrum might behave differently than expected.”

While not government-issued, some of these ID cards were created with the cooperation of local government entities, such as public defenders’ offices or police departments. “Now, a few states, such as Alabama, allow a person to be identified as being on the spectrum on their regular, state-issued ID or driver’s license,” says Hoelscher.

Thousands have already requested ID cards in New York and Connecticut. Parents, says Hoelscher, are particularly supportive of such measures because they understand that how the world sees their children is potentially dangerous.

Controversial in the ASD community

But some advocates for people with autism are less-enthusiastic about government-issued ID cards. “We have serious concerns about these laws, even when they are supposedly optional,” says Samantha Crane, legal director and director of public policy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN):

  • It is unsafe for someone with autism to reach for an ID card when interacting with first responders, especially when that individual is a person of color who’s interacting with armed police officers.
  • First responders may reject a person’s need for disability accommodations if they do not possess a specialized ID card.
  • Printing disability information on driver’s licenses prevents people with autism from choosing whether or not they want to disclose their disability.
  • Presenting a driver’s license or ID with a disability designation may make a person with autism more vulnerable to discrimination in workplace, recreational, or other settings.

Ohio is sensitive to these concerns and trying a slightly different tactic with House Bill 115, according to David Moser, an associate at Isaac Wiles law firm. Under the bill, which took effect August 2018, individuals may voluntarily submit a verification form to identify themselves as having a communication disability such as autism, explains Moser.

This information is then made available to law enforcement officers, through the Law Enforcement Automated Data System (LEADS), when the driver’s license is run – at a traffic stop, for example. LEADS only reports general information, allowing officers to draw on training while keeping private the specifics of the driver’s diagnosis.

But ID cards and electronically-transmitted information do not contain instructions on assisting autistic individuals. First responders receive a lot of training, but they cannot be trained for every possible situation, cautions Hoelscher. “They will not all be experts capable of understanding what is an autism behavior and what is deception or uncooperativeness.”

Ineffective without training

Mental health training is often at odds with other first responder training. “A cop who has been training for years to watch for furtive gestures may not react well to someone with ASD who suddenly whips out what is later determined to be an ID card,” says Hoelscher.

But advocacy organization Autism Speaks promotes teaching first responders the signs of autism as an important first step toward preventing unfortunate situations. Equipping officers with a working knowledge of autism – and the wide variety of behaviors people with autism can exhibit in emergency situations – is critical. For example, a person with autism might respond with fight or flight, avoid eye contact, or not follow “stop” or other verbal commands, any of which could escalate the situation.

Ideally, the first responder will identify that the individual may have autism, draw on the training received for dealing with such a situation, and respond in a way that best supports the individual, such as using simple sentences, avoiding quick movements and loud noises, or not touching the person.

Autism Speaks describes a “good autism recognition and response” program as one that informs law enforcement professionals about the risks associated with autism and offers suggestions and options for addressing those risks.

More work to do

Training first responders to recognize and respond to ASD is critical. Autistic behavior familiar to the loved ones of the individual can be confusing or threatening to a police officer or first responder who has not been trained to recognize them.

The Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition (ALEC) has trained first responders – police officers, firefighters, emergency and courtroom personnel – in 40 states. Likewise, individual police departments across the nation are looking at ways to identify autistic individuals to improve police interactions with the public.

“So far, training typically depends on availability and interest at the local level,” says Moser. Local jurisdictions across the nation have begun exploring training options, but many lack the interest and resources needed to make it happen.

For now…

“Most folks working with individuals on the spectrum see any kind of training as an improvement,” says Hoelscher. “Moreover, a government ID can be carried with an instructional or educational card.” He adds that the stigma can be mitigated by issuing separate disability cards rather than adding a designation on a regular ID or license. “Respecting the privacy of people on the spectrum and allowing them to make the decision to disclose will go a long way to encouraging adoption of these policies meant to protect them.”