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Chaplaincy and Autism: How to Respond

Autism affects a lot of people in the US and law enforcement officers are likely to encounter autistic people in their daily duties. As a chaplain, you can play a vital role in assisting the officer you are with as they talk to them. To do that, you need to know a few things that will help you understand the mindset of an autistic person. Let me say up front that I am not an expert on this subject, but I have been around autistic people in the past as a pastor, chaplain, and deputy.

Autism is still not fully understood. The cause of it is still unknown. It crosses all lines of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is proven to be hereditary. So, if you are dealing with a family, you may have more than one person who is autistic on the scene. Males are more likely to have autism than females: 1 in 42 males is autistic, while only 1 in 189 females. The life span of people with autism is normal; you may encounter people of all ages who have autism.

Autism is usually diagnosed in childhood by looking at a child’s behavior. Clinicians look at what the child is not doing enough of (e.g., speaking) and what they are doing too much of (e.g., repetitive behavior).

See What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder? and First Responders Learn How to Recognize Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What to Expect in Dealing with Someone Who Has Autism

I remember a young man in my church who was autistic. One Saturday we were doing a mission project helping a smaller church. Someone had brought fresh donuts for us to have with coffee that morning. I saw this young man and asked him if he wanted donuts. He quickly and very shortly told me no. I saw him a few minutes later and asked again if he was sure he didn’t want a donut, because they were still warm and tasted great! He very loudly told me that he had already told me one time that he didn’t want a donut. It was because he had eaten a biscuit on the way that morning! On the surface, it appeared that he was mad, but he was just frustrated that I asked the question again. So, be careful about repeating the same question to them. In Law Enforcement, that is our go to for discovering the truth! For autistic folks, they will usually tell you the truth the first time!

Autistic people will also speak their mind. There is no filter between their thoughts and their speech. The same young man was on another mission trip and had asked for a task to do. People with autism may consider it important to have a job to do, but not more than one. I had told him to watch after my wife while we were there because I would be busy leading the team. That evening, during our debriefing meeting for the day, I mentioned that I was thankful for him doing that. I was trying to make him feel good about helping. He replied, “Well someone had to do it because you weren’t doing it!” Again, he wasn’t being mad or ugly; he just spoke what came to his mind.

I had another teenager with autism notice I was wearing braces on my teeth at the age of 60. He asked if that was braces on my teeth. I replied yes. He said. “That is so sad at your age.” Don’t take such responses or advice an autistic person may give personally. They simply speak their minds.

Autism can come across as resistance and rebellion when the person is really just experiencing “stimulus overload” and needs a calming voice to help them relax. Telling them to calm down may just frustrate them more. In their minds they are calm; you are the one that’s not!

Helping Officers

If you are riding with an officer and recognize a person they are dealing with may be autistic, it is okay to advise the officer of your suspicion. I am always open to good information when I have a ride along. If a person is autistic and you recognize it, you may be able to de-escalate a situation before it gets out of hand. A person with autism may be easily agitated by repetitive questions (like we ask in law enforcement).

You can help an officer that you are with to understand these things as well. They may have never encountered autism or may not recognize it in a person. As the article above says, it is okay to ask people if they have autism. You will not cause them to have it by asking and it may help you deal with their situation.

Take time to learn more about autism. Most officers will be glad to have you along if you know how to respond. Just remember to know what the officer is trying to accomplish so that you will be on the same page. The more you know, the more helpful you will be in Chaplaincy!

Check out this free one-day seminar which will familiarize First Responders with ASD characteristics & provide interaction/de-escalation strategies.

Bennie Durham

Vice President

South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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