A Guide For Interacting with People With Special Needs

Using these true-to-life scenarios, these pages explore how law enforcement officers and prosecutors respond to people with disabilities. The stories are based on real cases that were investigated by police departments across the country. In some instances, the information has been altered slightly in order for it not to be harmful or offensive to anyone involved. Each story was chosen because of its relevance to our lives as people with disabilities and those who love us. We hope you will find them both informative and inspiring.

It’s time we change the way police treat people with special needs. Our rights must be protected just like everyone else’s. It is a sad truth that many of us have had encounters with law enforcement that have left us feeling vulnerable, scared, confused, angry, humiliated…and worse. Some people have even lost their jobs over incidents they didn’t cause.

Some may question why an interaction guide for police would ever need to exist. Here’s some facts for you to consider:

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  • In 2017, People with disabilities made up 22% of Canada’s population (Source: Statistics Canada). This means there were roughly 6.2 million Canadians living with special needs. Of this number, roughly one out of sixty-six of the general population are autistic.

  • 30-40% of autistic individuals are non-verbal – meaning that they don’t, or can’t speak. This can be an issue when communication is key, especially when an officer’s safety is on the line.

  • Autistic individuals can face discrimination and prejudice from society at large. Many still do. And sometimes they encounter police officers and other public servants who don’t understand what they’re going through. 

  • Police officers may not know about autism; some aren’t aware of its existence at all. They often treat children as if they were simply “acting out.” In fact, many police departments now train their officers on how to deal with special needs kids because there are more than ever before—more families and guardians seeking help.

  • Autism isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it’s clear when someone is having trouble understanding something or communicating. But in other cases, the signs may be harder to spot. There’s no way of knowing unless an officer knows what to look for.

  • When police first encounter an individual with special needs, they may think he or she is being aggressive or threatening. The person might be non-verbal, which makes communication difficult. Or maybe the individual has a medical condition that requires medication, making it hard to control his or her behavior.

It is our genuine hope that this collection of anecdotes helps to educate and inform those who work in law enforcement. Hopefully, it will make them aware of the challenges that people with special needs face.

The stories contained herein are real. We hope you will share your thoughts on them so that we can continue to make improvements in the future.