For many people with autism, it can be hard to interact with other people. It can be especially challenging when people with autism encounter law enforcement personnel. People with autism can be slow to respond to questions or commands and may not understand an officer's request. Miscommunication in the face of law enforcement can have unfortunate, and sometimes deadly, consequences. Most police officers have little to no training on how to recognize, communicate with, and respond to individuals with autism while out in the field.
The advocacy group, Autism Speaks, encourages people with autism to bring cards or handouts to present to law enforcement and security personnel. But Texas has now made it easier for individuals to advise the police of possible communication challenges. In 2017, the Texas legislature passed a measure that would encourage people with autism to utilize the state’s “communication impediment code” to help alleviate any issues in communicating with law enforcement.
What is a Communication Impediment Code?
A communication impediment code is a notice placed on a driver's license or identification card that should notify law enforcement looking at the license that the person has a health condition that may impede their ability to communicate. The code is printed on the back of the license where it would not be evident to most people glancing at the license.
To qualify for the communication impediment code, an individual must complete a Physician's Statement Form and submit it with their driver's license or ID card application. Registration for the code is entirely optional, so those worried about possible stigma do not have to apply. The communication impediment code, in conjunction with new police officer training initiatives, should provide some protection to people with autism in their interactions with law enforcement.
Initiatives in Other States
Texas's plan is not unique, and other states have taken measures to assist people with autism in communicating their condition to law enforcement. Arkansas recently passed a measure allowing individuals to apply for a communication impediment decal on their license or ID card. In Alabama and Florida, drivers who have been diagnosed with autism can carry separate identification cards to present to police. In Kansas, in addition to an indicator on their driver’s licenses, people with autism can have a decal placed on their license plates and a placard which they can place in their vehicles.
What’s the Downside?
While these programs are helpful to both people with autism and law enforcement, there can be stigma and assumptions that go along with a diagnosis. Law enforcement officers aren't the only people who see someone's driver's license. Under Texas's initiative, there is no indication on the license that the individual has an autism diagnosis, only that they have a communication impediment. The code is also not prominently displayed on the license. In other states, decals are affixed to the license which may draw more attention to the fact that someone has a health issue. The use of autism-specific identification cards clearly indicates to others the specifics of a diagnosis; however, the individual is not required to present the card to anyone if they choose not to. The key seems to be the voluntary nature of these programs and allowing an individual with autism decide how they would like to proceed.
Additionally, these initiatives should not be seen as a panacea. Law enforcement should still undergo training on how to identify people with intellectual/developmental disabilities and how to properly interact with them.
If you or a loved one has autism and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.