Lawmakers in New Jersey are considering a bipartisan measure that would allow people with autism spectrum disorder — or other communication issues — to voluntarily note their conditions on their driver's licenses or non-driver IDs.
Dr. Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of Autism New Jersey, joined WNYC's Tiffany Hanssen on All Things Considered to discuss why that might be important for people who have difficulty communicating with the police.
The transcript of their discussion below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tiffany Hanssen: So before we talk about the bill specifically, I just want to talk about what it's like for somebody with autism to get stopped by the police. It can be stressful for anybody. It's stressful for me. I can't imagine how stressful it might be for someone who has difficulty communicating verbally or picking up on other cues. What can you tell us about that?
Suzanne Buchanan: That's exactly right. Everyone, I think, is stressed out when they're being pulled over. But for individuals with autism, they very likely have a stress response that could potentially make the situation even less safe.
Anytime there's interaction with law enforcement, first impressions are critical. Police officers have to very quickly assess if someone's behavior is unusual or suspicious. And what this might manifest as in someone with autism is that they may not do typical things that are in that assessment, right? So they might not make eye contact. They might not talk at a normal rate. They might talk too slowly or too quickly. They might not follow orders right away.
And so, these are the things that an officer has to kind of go through in their checklist, and see: "Is this something that's unusual? Or is this something I need to take a different perspective on?"
And I would imagine, for a person with autism or difficulty communicating, not only might they have a heightened response immediately, but seeing those lights in the rearview mirror are going to trigger all sorts of things, right?
There can be many misunderstandings, based on the the deficits and kind of verbal and nonverbal communication that some people with autism have. And I can give one example. I was not with the person at the time, but it was relayed back to me afterward.
So, a young man with autism was driving and was pulled over, and the officer came over and said, "License and registration, please." And he provided those. Step one, complete.
And then the officer said, "OK, you know, pull over to that parking lot, please." And the individual with autism was so focused on the rules, thinking "I can't operate my car without my license on me, and he just took my license." So he thought that the officer was trying to trick him into doing something illegal, and so he said, "No, I can't."
But he was so stressed that he couldn't get out this full explanation. And so it all resolved — but for those first few seconds, it was pretty tense.
I can imagine. So let's talk about the bill. Versions of it have been floated multiple times over the last few years. This last version seems to be making some progress, moving through committee votes. It's got some strong support. How is the bill itself received by yourself, advocates and people with autism?
Oh, it's very welcome, right? I mean, the most important part for many people in the autism community, of course, is that it's voluntary, right? It's the individual driver, and then where appropriate, in collaboration with their parents, guardians, caregivers, etc. — those who know the individual best.
Why is that important for someone with autism?
It's important because we want to make sure the individual's rights are respected. Not every condition that every person has needs to be listed on their driver's license, and driver's licenses are also not only used in law enforcement situations, they're used in all other sorts of interactions with community members and and others.
We just wouldn't want anyone to have to feel that they had to disclose a diagnosis in situation in which it wouldn't be in their best interest or their choice.
The bill also calls for guidance for police officers to help them learn to effectively communicate with someone with autism or other disorders. What sort of guidance or training do you think would be most helpful for the police in this situation?
I think there are two fundamentals of police training when it comes to autism. One: Learning about the symptoms and how autism presents, and how individuals with autism get through their daily lives. And the spectrum is very broad. You have those with average or above-average intelligence, and you have those who have profound intellectual disabilities. And there's a huge range of how autism manifests. So you want to understand the basic symptoms, and you want to understand individuals and how autism manifests in individuals
And then you also want to give the officers an opportunity to role-play common scenarios with people who know more about people with autism, so that they can see themselves kind of in those situations, practice it and then know where to go for more help. That last piece is making sure that during an interaction they know the right people to call, or the right people to connect the individual and the family, too.