Bill to aid police in communicating with cognitively impaired
HANSON — When Laurie Hammond’s 14-year-old son is ready to take driver’s education and get his license, she knows he’ll face some added challenges should he ever have an encounter with police in traffic situations.
He has a form of autism — pervasive developmental disorder/not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), which affects communication skills.
Hammond, from Hanson, researched the issue of drivers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and developed a petition seeking a state law providing for placement of a voluntary symbol on drivers’ licenses indicating ASD or other cognitive disorders. Among the petition’s hundreds of signers were many law enforcement officers.
State Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, filed a bill seeking the symbol with the Statehouse Clerk on Friday, Aug. 28.
“This symbol will provide the interacting officer with the knowledge that the operator of this motor vehicle may respond or behave in a unique manner,” stated Cutler’s Legislative Aide Richard Branca. “The legislation works to actively communicate between driver and police officer and we hope it will prevent potential miscommunication that could result in arrests or physical altercations between driver and officer.”
“I’m seeing the need for it,” Hammond said of the symbol, much like that of an organ donor symbol on licenses. “After speaking with some law enforcement officers, I quickly got the impression that they do not have enough training. They also don’t know what to look for.”
The symbol should be something, such as a color-coded bar, that is not obvious to the casual observer but one first-responders and police would be trained to notice. Other cognitive disorders or disabilities such as deafness could also be noted by such symbols, Hammond said.
“It’s also gonig to protect law enforcement because they don’t always know what they’re dealing with,” she said. “It’s kind of a win-win.”
Similar laws have been enacted in other states, including Virginia and Texas.
Her son, and many other people on the spectrum, have a tendency to ask a lot of questions, perseverate over issues, and make infrequent eye contact, according to Hammond.
“After reading many articles on the subject and speaking with law enforcement. I realized that this could be problematic if a driver were to get pulled over for a routine traffic stop,” she said. “My son and a lot of his friends on the spectrum are going to look noncompliant — I know them well. They’re not going to do it on purpose.”
The lack of eye contact could make an officer believe the driver is nervous and may be hiding something, when this is clearly not the case. They may ask a lot of questions or behave or react in a way which makes them look non-compliant to the police officer, resulting in a sequence of events that could be frightening and dangerous.
They also have a black-and-white view of things, so intimidation and sarcasm are misunderstood. She noted a video she has seen in which a police officer asked an ASD person if they waived their rights, only to be puzzled when the person began waving at him.
“He’s waving because he’s being very literal-minded and an officer might take this as being noncompliant and obnoxious, when it’s not the case,” she said.
She sees the license symbol as a way of informing police who they are dealing with, while providing a level of comfort to the autistic person with whom they are interacting.
Her research indicates those with an ASD are seven times more likely to have contact with law enforcement. One in 68 is now diagnosed with an ASD.
“This is going to apply to a lot of drivers,” Hammond said.