Children's Hospital Colorado

Talking to Kids with Autism About Safety and the Police

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It’s important to talk to all children about how to interact safely with the police. This information can be even more critical for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — especially children of color.

We understand that Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have different histories and experiences with the police. Our hope is that this guide can provide useful strategies and information for all families, with an emphasis on helping communities of color.

Before you talk to your kids about police safety, take a moment to think about your own experiences, values and opinions about the police. Understand how your experience impacts your feelings. Decide what message you want your child to hear and how you can best help them handle interactions with police.

The Developmental Pediatrics team at Children’s Hospital Colorado put together this guide in collaboration with numerous parents, police departments (particularly the Denver Police Department) and other resources.

Helping you keep your kids safe

Interactions with the police can be scary for anyone. But for kids with ASD — especially kids of color — police encounters can be frightening and dangerous. Our guide provides resources you can use to keep your child safe.

Read our full guide

Tips for talking to your child about police safety

Before starting any conversation, it’s important to meet your child where they are. Use resources and language appropriate to your child’s abilities. Think about what information your child needs in the moment, given their unique strengths and challenges.

  • Determine what your child needs to know: Recognize your child’s skills and challenges when choosing resources and starting this conversation. Gear your topics and tools to your child’s age and abilities.
  • Preview material before sharing: Always read a book or watch a video on your own before showing it to your child. Make sure the content is appropriate for your specific situation and your child’s needs.
  • Use visuals: If your child is less verbal, conversations about police interactions may need to be more visual. Use social stories or comic strip conversations that describe situations in both pictures and words. You can also role-play an interaction with the police to help them better understand.
  • Talk about racism and social justice: Black and Brown children in particular have different histories and experiences with the police. Don’t shy away from including those stories in your discussions about how to stay safe during police interactions. We offer these resources to help discuss racism and social justice:
  • Have these conversations early and often: There is no one right time to talk to your child about police interactions. It’s best to start early and continue to discuss the topic as your child grows up.

Police safety products and resources

Most states and communities offer a variety of resources and services to help parents keep their children with ASD safe. Here are some resources to look for in your area:

  • Smart911: This program allows people to register phone numbers along with important information (such as diagnosis, medical conditions, medications and allergies). This information automatically displays when that phone number places an emergency call.
  • CIT officers: If you need to call 911, ask if a Crisis Intervention Trained (CIT) officer can be part of the response team to assist your child with ASD.
  • Big Red Safety Box: The Big Red Safety Box is a free kit of preventative safety tools from the National Autism Association. It includes safety window stickers for cars and homes, an ID bracelet and safety wristband.
  • Safety planning guide: Find guidelines and tips for drafting a safety plan for your child with ASD.
  • Additional safety products and resources: AutismSpeaks has a list of resources for parents or caregivers of children with autism. They provide links to free or low-cost safety products for children with ASD.

Books and websites

These books and stories about kids, racial injustice and police may be helpful to share with your child:

  • Mama, Did you Hear the News? by Sanya Whittaker Gragg (ages 5 to 10)
  • Something Happened in Our Town, by Marianne Celano, PhD, Marietta Collins, PhD, and Ann Hazard, PhD (ages 4 to 8; also available to read online)
  • The American Psychological Association has a list of updated resources for children, caretakers and teachers to talk about diversity and social justice
  • Teachers Pay Teachers offers many social stories at low cost about social justice, police interactions and safety

Autism and The Police: A Book for Black and Brown Kids

For kids with autism, interacting with the police can be hard. Kids who identify as Black or Brown may have extra concerns. This booklet provides expert tips for having safe exchanges with police.

Read this guidebook

How to put together a crisis plan for your child

A crisis plan is a written (printed) outline of information that helps you and others be ready if your child has a crisis or interacts with police. Crisis plans are very helpful, especially if your child wanders, has any aggressive behaviors or runs away.

Keep information in the plan specific and brief. It may be useful to include a script of what to say about your child if you must call the police. Keep copies of the plan in your cars, home and travel cases. You may also want to share your crisis plan with:

  • Police departments in your neighborhood or other places you frequent
  • Advocates
  • School contacts
  • Therapists
  • Friends or family members
  • Neighbors

Practice your plan regularly with others in your family. It helps to problem-solve issues when you are not in crisis. Behaviors, triggers and important information can change, so keep the crisis plan updated as your child ages. Be sure to replace old copies that others may have, as well.

Your crisis plan needs to include:

  • Your child’s name and age
  • A recent picture
  • A list of any medicines
  • Your home address
  • Important phone numbers and whether they might have a cell phone with them
  • Details about their ability to respond in a crisis and possible triggers
  • Whether your child carries ID or contact information

You may also want to include:

  • Information about self-soothing behaviors (like pacing, rocking or humming) that your child is more likely to exhibit in stressful situations
  • Information about behaviors that indicate your child is feeling increasing distress, such as covering their ears, stomping or loud vocalization
  • Actions that are helpful (like talking in a calm voice, turning off sirens, not using touch) and actions that may make the situation worse (such as physical contact, loud voices, drawn weapons)
  • Locations or people that your child tends to go to when they are upset
  • When it may be useful or necessary to call the police

How to connect with local police

We understand that contacting and meeting with local law enforcement officers is not a good fit for all families. You can also ask your child’s school administrator, therapist or other supports for suggestions on how to help your child.

The more opportunities your child has to interact positively with the police, the better they’ll be able to handle an unexpected encounter. Visiting the police department and talking to officers helps your child feel less scared.

As your child grows up, their needs change. It can be useful to do a visit each year around your child’s birthday. This allows any new officers to get to know your child and have updated information.

It can be helpful to:

  • Set up a visit to the police station: Call the non-emergency number or information line for your nearest police station. Ask if the department offers tours or other ways for your child to have positive interactions with police officers.
  • Make a response plan: Children of color may have a higher chance of encountering police. You can call CIT officers or a community liaison at your local police department to create a response plan.
  • Share your plan: Think about who else needs this information — such as your child’s school resource officers, sheriff’s officers or local security offices.

Support groups for families of color

Many organizations support families of color who have children with ASD, including: