5 Tips to Help AAC Users Deal Successfully with Law Enforcement

5 Tips to Help AAC Users Deal Successfully with Law Enforcement

The relationship between AAC users and law enforcement is, understandably, a difficult and sensitive subject for many of us. But as Mr. Rogers always said, “it it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” Today we’d like to discuss this important issue in order to help keep families safe and aware of their options at all times.

Over the past year, many of us have become aware of the volatile relationship between law enforcement and Black and brown members of our community.

Further, it is well known that people with developmental and intellectual disabilities also experience disproportionately more negative outcomes when dealing with the criminal justice system.

This is especially true if they belong to other marginalized groups such as people of color, LGBTQIA+, or indigenous communities. Click here for more information.

5 Tips to Help AAC Users Deal Successfully with Law Enforcement

Unfortunately, police often have limited access or exposure to training on disabilities. This is especially the case when it comes to ‘invisible’ diagnoses that are not visually apparent (autism, intellectual disability, apraxia, and so on). In addition, behaviors typically associated with such disabilities and differences can sometimes appear “threatening” or “suspicious” to people unfamiliar with the nature of the disability.

We want to prepare our clients to successfully navigate encounters with the police. We also want to help police better understand AAC users and prepare them for encounters with our clients.

We hope that these tips will help our community take some small steps towards a better, more inclusive, and more understanding world for everyone no matter how they communicate.

5 Tips to Help AAC Users Deal Successfully with Law Enforcement

1. Video Modeling and Social Stories

Video modeling and social stories are two excellent ways to learn about and prepare for encounters with law enforcement.

Video modeling is an evidence-based intervention in which an AAC user watches a video of someone modeling a target behavior or skill. This increases their ability to imitate that behavior/skill.

BE SAFE The Movie is an example of verbal people with disabilities interacting with law enforcement. Be aware that it may need to be modified for AAC users.

Social stories are individualized short stories, made up of words and/or pictures, that explain what to do in certain social situations and the outcomes of behaviors on themselves and others. Some good ones include:

For more information, check out these tips from Pathfinders for Autism.

2. Program and Practice Specific Phrases

To facilitate difficult encounters, AAC users can practice specific phrases or program those phrases into their AAC device. Here is an example:

I have autism/I am Autistic. I use this device to speak. I have a difficult time following verbal commands. Please call my emergency contact immediately.

Consider including statements about the user’s stressed behaviors such as elopement or self-injury. Phrases like this explain that the AAC user has a disability, helps the law enforcement officer understand their behaviors, and shows what to do next.

Here is a video of an AAC user using his touchscreen to practice identifying and communicating with a law enforcement officer.

As you can see, he is able to recognize a police car and police officer, ask for help, and use his device to quickly convey crucial information to the officer.

Practicing techniques and phrases like this can make all the difference in enabling effective communication between AAC users and law enforcement.

3. Additional Visual Identification

There are many types of visual identification that help persons with disabilities explain their condition.

Alert Me Bands, for example, show who to contact in an emergency situation when the wearer cannot do so. Temporary tattoos are also used.

4. GPS or Emergency Alerts

GPS and emergency alert options are available from:

AngelSense, for example, offers GPS tracking devices made for people with intellectual disabilities. They come with emergency detection alerts, an assistive speakerphone, an easy-to-use SOS button, and more. It alerts parents and caretakers if their loved one is in an unexpected location.

5. Familiarize Your Local Precinct

It’s always a good idea to familiarize your local precinct in advance with an AAC user and their specific needs. This will facilitate positive encounters with law enforcement officials.

You may consider placing a safety sticker on your front door to alert visitors entering your house that someone with disabilities lives there. You may also contact dispatchers directly to request a note on the file connected to your residence. Some precincts are using 911 disability indicator forms or Smart911 to store data and make it available to emergency call centers.

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We hope this article has provided some useful insights on helping AAC users interact successfully with law enforcement.

See below for some great educational resources to help law enforcement officers interact with AAC users:

Also check out this pilot program that provides employment opportunities for people with disabilities while facilitating positive interactions between AAC users and police officers.

Would you like to know more about visual identification, emergency alerts, or any other tips discussed in this article? Reach out to us anytime!

Seattle Therapy would be honored to help you and your children with all their AAC needs.


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