Typical ADHD Behaviors

Policing the Neurodivergent — Safely

How can officers better “protect and serve” people with ADHD, autism, and other invisible disabilities? It starts with training.

A police officer interacting with an ADHD adult

Meltdowns in airports are a frequent occurrence for Russell Lehmann. The 33-year-old is an accomplished speaker, author, and advocate with autism, and the unpredictability of air travel leads to overwhelm. When he’s in the midst of a meltdown, pounding his chest or banging his head for the sensory input, he prays that a police officer is nowhere nearby.

“My autism is extremely invisible,” Lehmann says. “Society has more tolerance for a child having a meltdown but when an adult male who doesn’t look disabled does it, it comes across as very threatening.”

Recently on a work trip, Lehmann’s flight was delayed, causing his “Jenga tower of functioning” to come tumbling down. He kicked a trash can in frustration, attracting the attention of a heavily-armed police officer. Lehmann’s mother stepped in, explaining, “My son has autism. I’ve got this.” The officer took a step back, ready but waiting, as Lehmann calmed down.

Lehmann has had enough negative encounters with law enforcement — cornering him, cursing at him, shaming him — to know this was a best-case scenario. He’s terrified about what could have happened if he hadn’t had a traveling companion, or if the officer was more forceful. He wonders what the outcome might have been if he’d been Black.

The duty of law enforcement is to protect and serve, but when they encounter people with disabilities, too often the result is harm instead of help. Adults and teens with autism, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental disorders appear to be at a heightened risk for negative outcomes every step of the way in the criminal justice system, from first police contact to questioning and detainment, to jail, trial, and beyond. Mishandled interactions can result in everything from distress and humiliation to jail time, or even death.

[Read: What the Americans with Disabilities Act Means For You]

While no comprehensive data exists on the collective outcomes when people with disabilities encounter police, we do know that neurodivergent individuals are over-represented in the carceral system. Rates of ADHD are six times higher among inmates than in the general public,1  and rates of intellectual and developmental disabilities (including autism) are four times higher.2

Law Enforcement and the Neurodivergent: Unique Risks

Neurodivergent people face challenges with law enforcement as victims, witnesses, and especially as suspects. For individuals with autism, common behaviors like stimming, avoiding contact, or meltdowns arouse suspicion, which can lead officers to shout commands or make physical contact. This, in turn, intensifies sensory overwhelm and anxiety, making compliance less likely, not more.

Similarly, people with ADHD may have trouble following commands, because of impulsivity or distractibility, and this behavior can be viewed by police as uncooperative or disrespectful. An individual’s hyperactivity and restlessness, exacerbated by confinement to a chair in a small room, might be perceived as a sign of guilt. Working memory problems, time blindness, and memory distrust syndrome may cause a person with ADHD to have difficulty accurately answering questions or to reply, “I don’t know” to even simple questions such as: “Is this the road you live on?” Police may misinterpret this as evasiveness, another possible sign of guilt.

[Read About the Mom Spearheading Police Training on Autism]

In all these cases, what might have begun as a harmless situation can escalate quickly. “Officers that can’t identify the signs of disability may over-utilize force, may make an arrest for a situation that doesn’t call for one,” explains Texas Police Sergeant James Turner, who spent nearly a decade heading the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training in Austin, Texas.

Heightened Threats for People of Color

For neurodivergent people of color, the perils of an interaction with police are even greater. Black Americans are killed by police at twice the rate of White Americans, according to the Fatal Force Database, which has been tracking deadly police shootings since 2015.

Stephon Watts, a Black 15-year-old with autism in Illinois, was one of these victims. Watts’ parents called 911 to help respond to their son’s meltdown, but the arrival of the police only escalated Watts’ distress. Police fired two shots, killing Watts in his own home. In 2021, Illinois passed the Stephon Watts Act, also called the Community Emergency Services and Support Act (CESSA), which requires emergency responders to send mental health professionals to respond to mental or behavioral health calls.

Devastating stories like these keep Evelyn Polk Green, M.S., Ed., up at night. Past president of ADDA (Attention Deficit Disorder Association) and CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), Green says that as a mother to Black sons with ADHD, she worries about all the things that any mother of a person with ADHD worries about in a police encounter. “It’s just multiplied exponentially by all the other things that we already have to worry about on top of it,” she explains. “Unfortunately, so often law enforcement is ready to jump to the absolute worst conclusion and with Black and brown kids, it’s even worse, because they often automatically assume they’re up to something.”

Disability Awareness Training on De-escalation Techniques

Experts agree: training is the essential first step in ensuring better outcomes. “Most people call 911 when they don’t know what to do. We have to be properly equipped in that moment to handle that crisis,” says Sergeant Turner. “We are problem solvers but we have to have the tools.”

Those tools are exactly what David Whalen, project director for Niagara University First Responder Disability Awareness Training (DAT), aims to provide. The DAT is an eight-hour comprehensive training that covers victimization, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, interface with CIT, interaction skills, proper language and specific information on identifying and understanding a dozen disabilities including ADHD, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, dementia, and epilepsy.

Sergeant Turner’s disability awareness training was received during a 40-hour CIT training, required for all cadets in Texas. CIT training addresses how to support people experiencing a mental health crisis, and Turner hastens to clarify: “People with disabilities are not mentally ill, though they can have that issue as well.” Because some of the techniques (including de-escalation) overlap, disability awareness is often folded into CIT training.

Key topics include:

  • Recognition of Disability: Officers learn common signs and symptoms of disabilities. Not all individuals can self-identify, and some choose not to. Proper identification of disability prevents officers from jumping to erroneous conclusions, including that the person is intoxicated, and allows for ADA accommodations.
  • De-escalation Techniques, including:
    • Giving the individual space and time to respond. Many encounters with disabled individuals take a tragic turn simply because of the speed at which they unfold, creating unmanageable (and often unnecessary) distress. “You don’t always need to rush up on them,” says Turner. “You need to ask yourself, what are the risks vs. benefits of delaying action?”
    • Appropriate communication is essential. If someone with autism is distressed or experiencing sensory overwhelm, for example, a loud, commanding voice may cause further overwhelm. Adjusting tone and pace of speech, or using a pad and pen or hand signals, might be appropriate. Sometimes, Turner says, the key might be to call a family member to ask for specific guidance about support.
    • When force is unavoidable, using less lethal tools like tasers and pepper spray can save lives.
  • Connect with Community Resources: Often, Whalen says, it is invaluable for officers to help individuals pursue longer-term support. Turner agrees: “We are not the experts. We just need to know who the experts are.”

“Fighting for Crumbs of Funding”

It’s clear that training works to improve outcomes. Yet there’s enormous variability in how much, if any, disability awareness training police officers receive, since it’s largely determined on a local level.  Too often, Whalen says, training only happens as a term of a settlement after a person with disability, or their family, sues the police for wrongdoing.

This was the case in Maryland; the bill that now requires disability awareness training for all police officers — through the Ethan Saylor Alliance — was created only after a 26-year-old man with Down Syndrome was killed when sheriff deputies tried to forcibly eject him from a movie theater where he neglected to buy a ticket.

“It would be beneficial to have something mandated at the national level but you have got to have the funding to support implementation,” says Leigh Anne McKingsley, senior director of Criminal Justice Initiatives at The Arc. “This issue of disability justice has been bumped down the priority list, and we’re fighting for crumbs of funding to bring about the exposure and education we need.”

Beyond Training: Community Resources

Training is crucial, but McKingsley says: “You can’t just expect training to take care of everything,” This is why, as part of its training, The Arc’s Pathway to Justice program assembles Disability Response Teams (DRT). These are multidisciplinary planning teams that bring together law enforcement, people with disabilities, attorneys, victim advocates, and disability advocates to collaborate in an open dialogue.

“The mandate is, on the day of training, the DRT starts making a plan of action moving forward,” McKingsley says. That includes brainstorming how to address the most glaring gaps in support and services both short and long term, and figuring out how to expand disability training in the community.

Sergeant Turner, who served on a DRT in 2019, agrees that bringing together police officers and people with disabilities leads to better policing. “Anytime someone calls 911, well, it’s probably not the best day of that person’s life,” Turner says. “Showing what a person with a disability looks like when they’re not in crisis is important.” Lehmann agrees: “Get-togethers with fun activities allow police officers to see the human side of disability, and they give that context.”

On the flip side, Lehmann points out, these community events help people with disabilities familiarize themselves with police officers in a calm environment, alleviating anxiety and setting the stage for better outcomes.

To truly tackle the problem though, McKingsley says, we have to understand its contours more fully, and this requires research, which is currently scarce. “Data would help us better evaluate the training, to know what strategies work and why,” he says. “The more we can show how often these encounters are happening, the more we can bolster our ability to go to local and state entities for action.”

Detained by Police? Keep This in Mind

If law enforcement stops you with questions, remember these three key pieces of advice from Rosemary Hollinger, J.D., founder of Partner Up, LLC:

  1. First, pause. It’s important to not say the first thought that goes through your mind.
  2. Tell the officer you have ADHD. Under the ADA, you’re entitled to reasonable accommodations, including modified questioning, fidgets, frequent breaks, and access to your medication.
  3. Before you answer questions, make sure to have someone you trust, such as a lawyer or family member, with you to figure out exactly what happened. You must be truthful and accurate with police, so if you are forgetful and have time blindness, it’s essential to have a lawyer or trusted person with you to support you.

ADHD and the Risk of False Confession

Susan Young, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in London, has conducted extensive research about people with ADHD in the criminal justice system. One study in which she was involved found that people with ADHD were at an increased risk of making a false confession, and the more severe the person’s ADHD, the greater the risk.3

If police don’t recognize that an individual’s difficulty following commands, sitting still, and answering questions is a result of ADHD, they may misinterpret these behaviors as evasive and guilty, explains Young. This may cause police to detain the person for even longer, which in turn exacerbates symptoms — particularly if the person’s ADHD medication has worn off. It’s a vicious, dangerous cycle which creates desperation.

“There’s all this anxiety; they want to get out,” says Young, who adds that sometimes, people with ADHD will choose to proceed without an attorney present, because they can’t bear to extend the process at all.

“They just want to leave,” Young concludes. “And they’ll say anything.”

The study concluded that safeguards for people with ADHD must be “put in place to prevent miscarriages of justice.”

Law Enforcement and Neurodivergent Justice: Next Steps

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1 Young S, Moss D, Sedgwick O, Fridman M, Hodgkins P. A meta-analysis of the prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in incarcerated populations. Psychol Med. 2015 Jan;45(2):247–58. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291714000762

2   Bureau of Justice Statistics, Disabilities Among Prison and Jail Inmates, 2011-2012 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2015), tables 4 and 5, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dpji1112.pdf.

3 Gudjonsson, G. H., Gonzalez, R. A., & Young, S. (2021). The Risk of Making False Confessions: The Role of Developmental Disorders, Conduct Disorder, Psychiatric Symptoms, and Compliance. Journal of Attention Disorders, 25(5), 715-723. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054719833169