People with Asperger’s Syndrome risk being misunderstood by police

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder are more likely to be targeted by the authorities because their behaviour can be wrongly interpreted as being aggressive, says a disability advocate and consultant.

A young woman fatally shot by police in Sydney after she was seen waving a kitchen knife on Tuesday morning had Asperger's Syndrome.

But the former head of Autism Victoria, Murray Dawson-Smith, said the 22-year-old may not have been intending to threaten violence.

He said people with Asperger's Syndrome could become easily agitated when overwhelmed by noises and other sensory stimulants – and that agitation could by others interpreted as aggression.

For example, he said people with the disorder could become agitated when their train runs did not arrive at the scheduled time, bringing them to the attention of the PSOs. "All of a sudden they're a trouble maker".Mr Dawson-Smith said there had been a number of cases where people on the autism spectrum have accidentally got into a confrontation with Protection Services Officers patrolling public transport.

While Mr Murray Dawson-Smith was careful not to criticise police in the NSW shooting case, he said the officers may not have had the proper skills to defuse a situation involving a person with Asperger's Syndrome.

"My immediate reaction is that police lacked a level of competency and skill to work with that individual," he said.

The disability advocate said people with the developmental condition often needed time to process words spoken to them and it was likely that continual demands and yelling would cause them to get overwhelmed and further agitated.

He said it was best to talk calmly and give a person five or 10 seconds to process what was being said before expecting a response.

"If police are [continually] saying 'put the knife down, put the knife down' that person gets no time to absorb that information and they get more and more agitated."

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition which affects individuals in two main areas:

-          impaired communication and social interaction

-          restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities

 Difficulty communicating can result in 'melt downs' – this differs from a tantrum as the individual does not choose to have a melt down.

Individuals with ASD often have sensory sensitivities. They may be under or over sensitive to any of the five senses.

People with ASD "often find the world to be a confusing place".

The term "Autism Spectrum Disorder" includes Autism/Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.

Source: Amaze (formally Autism Victoria).