Opinion: Foster understanding between police and those with autism

Xavier DeGroat

In our ongoing efforts to help people with autism navigate an ever-changing world, we have often focused our attention on the everyday tasks — such as education and employment opportunities. But if we are to continue to push toward a better world, we have to push our conversation toward creating understanding in everyday situations.

A routine occurrence with law enforcement and first responders, such as a traffic stop, may be no big deal to most people. But for people with autism, the flashing lights and loud sirens of police cars, and the closeness and presence of an officer can cause panic and create a potentially harmful situation.

The lights and sirens of a police car can increase anxiety in those with autism. Legislation has been introduced to allow the voluntary disclosure of such information on driver’s licenses and ID cards.

For some people with autism, the lights and loud sounds can cause sensory overstimulation, increasing anxiety and fear. They can also cause self-stimulating behaviors which can be hard to understand to law enforcement. The increase in anxiety challenges an autistic individual’s ability to communicate, complicating the situation further. For any person, the need to feel a little control in a situation is dire, and even more so for people with autism.

Though unintended, an officer who is unaware of the signs of autism can escalate a situation before the individual is able to respond. As a person with autism, I know firsthand the need to address these situations — I’ve lived them. During traffic stops the body positioning and demeanor of the officer raised my already heightened anxiety, hurting my ability to communicate effectively, and escalating the situation.

Though my situation turned out fine, I count myself lucky, as escalated incidents like these have occurred in Ohio and Arizona, leading to injury for the autistic person involved. 

There is a solution to help people with autism and law enforcement better understand each other. I partnered with Michigan Sens. Tom Barrett and Curtis Hertel, to create bills allowing for voluntarily disclosure of this information on their driver’s license and state ID cards.

Proper identification by law enforcement and first responders will allow them to switch from their regular protocol to one that is slower, more patient and allows people with autism time to respond and communicate effectively about the situation. Senate Bills 278 and 279 created this voluntary option and passed the Senate on Oct. 16. They now await discussion in the House Transportation Committee where they will hopefully be passed to the House floor for a vote.

I have dedicated my life to promoting opportunities for people with autism through advocacy, education and humanitarian efforts. As part of my journey, I’ve founded the Xavier DeGroat Autism Foundation to further these goals. Over this past year, I have focused on helping law enforcement address their protocol when interacting with a person with autism. Through these efforts I have met with national leaders and most recently with President Donald Trump to discuss this issue and help bring awareness to a national stage.

These bills are a necessary step that continues our effort to create a more understanding and accepting society for all.

Xavier DeGroat is the founder and CEO of Xavier DeGroat Autisim Foundation which creates and promotes opportunities for people with autism through advocacy, education, economic opportunities and humanitarian efforts. He lives in Lansing.