Police and Autism: Building Effective Communication

By Guest


My name is Melisa Jaris. I am a League City Police Officer and I have a child who suffers from severe autism and is prone to elope (run away). I have seen both sides of the urgency, worry, care, and investigation involved when a special needs person wanders off or elopes. It is a heart- wrenching thing to experience both as a parent and as a first responder.

The care and safety of loved ones with special needs is a rising concern, especially when those loved ones wander or elope. These individuals often do not know where they are going, are unaware of their surroundings, and may not be able to communicate their name or address. Parents can share essential information about their loved ones with local law enforcement prior to an incident to save precious time in locating their loved one if needed. Certain information or alerts may be used by law enforcement to identify medical or safety issues involving certain addresses, vehicles, or people. Some departments have programs in place to address the particular needs of your loved one.

The League City Police Department created the Guardian program in response to our community's concerns for those who wander away or elope. Program participants must be diagnosed with a medical disorder that makes them prone to wandering or eloping and hinders their ability to communicate basic personal information (autism, Alzheimer's, dementia, etc.). The program is available to League City residents (parent or guardian, child or adult) and League City students (including daycare). Guardian allows a person to be entered into a database prior to an incident so that police have ready access to the person's information and photo. This provides first responders quick access to critical information in the field, should an incident occur. Additionally, the parents register their home address and vehicles so that first responders are alerted to look for a special needs person, should an incident occur at the home or with the vehicle. We understand that your loved one may not be able to call out for help or may not accept help in an emergency situation. Parents may enroll their loved ones of any age in this program by completing an application found on the police department's website (www.LCPD.com) under "Community Programs"), or at the League Police Department. Participant information should be updated annually to ensure first responders have the correct information and a current photograph.

One of the most important things you can do is teach your children that law enforcement personnel are in the community to help and protect them (if they can understand it). Children are often taught this in school and may even take field trips to meet law enforcement personnel; however, reinforcing this message is essential to children with special needs. If your child is put in a stressful situation, is in an unfamiliar environment, or is "in crisis," your child may not remember that law enforcement is there to help them. Reinforcing the message may help them in their time of need. My son has seen me in my police uniform enough to be comfortable with the uniform and the equipment I carry. Your child may shy away or be afraid of the police uniform or equipment if it unfamiliar to him. Consider taking your child to your local police department to meet and become familiar with law enforcement personnel, their vehicles, and their equipment.

Identifying a person's special or medical needs is also important. Many identification products can be found online that alert people to special needs or a medical condition. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to find a product that suits the person who needs it. A person suffering from a cognitive disorder may remove a bracelet or I.D. of some sort because he does not understand its importance or he may have increased sensitivity to certain product materials. If your loved one will wear or carry such information, try using multiple products. There are wrist bracelets, shoe tags, watches, jewelry, and many other options. Some products can be attached and re-attached to multiple items using a carabiner clip or Velcro. The product should indicate the person's name, medical disorder, and contact information for the parent or guardian. Any information a first responder can get from an ID tag or other product is valuable. Some parents even sew information into the child's clothing, like the manufacturing tag. My son does not like to wear shoes (shoe tag) or anything on his arms, so having multiple options helps.

The League City Police Department provides several free products to identify Guardian program participants, such as neoprene I.D. bracelets, window clings (car and home), license plate frames, and a key strap with carabiner. The products are marked with the Guardian logo and are intended to alert first responders. The goal in any case is to quickly and safely reunite you with your loved one.

Some parents would like to know how they can help their special needs children communicate better with law enforcement personnel. If possible, teach your child his or her name and your phone number or address. My son has limited speech and can only provide his name, but that is enough to build a rapport with first responders. A child's name may also help police if they are able to query a local special needs program database to check if the child is enrolled in the program.

The real problem is that law enforcement may not know how to communicate with a non-verbal or limited speech child. Your child may be accustomed to communicating with a picture board or sign language. Local law enforcement is not likely to have a picture board or have an officer educated in sign language. This is where I.D. tags and local program enrollment become even more useful. Speak with your local law enforcement agency about having basic picture boards made available to officers in the field. The League City Police Department maintains community partnerships that provide interpretation services when needed. You may also offer clues that law enforcement personnel may look for when a non-verbal person tries to communicate (needs a pen to draw or write, needs a computer keyboard, etc.).

Establishing non-verbal communication with our own special needs child takes a long time. As time goes by, we learn what certain sounds or gestures mean just by knowing our child. Law enforcement personnel will not be familiar with these quirks or habits. Those of us with special needs children also know that our child may become frustrated when unable to communicate, which can quickly escalate to an "episode" or "crisis." This can make any form of communication impossible between our child and a stranger, even if the stranger is there to provide help. My son bangs his head on things or runs when he is frustrated or angry. The faster and more efficiently a form of communication can be established, the better.

The types of communication programs or applications will vary among departments and communities. The League city Police Department is invested in serving our community, especially the vulnerable populations. I believe communities with a stronger call to action for such things will likely have more options for residents and local law enforcement personnel. Check with your local community groups and local law enforcement to find out what can be done to improve communication and information sharing in your community. The ability to effectively communicate is vital to successful reunification. If our loved ones cannot communicate, then we must find a way to do it for them.


Officer Melisa Jaris has been a League City Police Officer since 2002. During this time, she has earned a Master Peace Officer certification and a Master's degree in Criminal Justice. Officer Jaris developed the League City Police Department's Guardian program in response to community concerns regarding special needs children.