Spearheaded by Councilmember Mercedes Narcisse, the City Council passed a bill last week to require the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to train officers to be better at identifying and engaging appropriately with New Yorkers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as rates have risen in recent years.

“Requiring our police force to undergo such training could quite possibly save a life. Traditional tactics and approaches that would work for neurotypical people may not work for people with autism spectrum disorder,” said Narcisse, who had a career as a nurse before taking office, in a statement

The bill, Intro 273, was approved in a City Council hearing on April 27. The NYPD training will be incorporated into the academy’s processes for new recruits and all uniformed members will have it every other year.

Christal Williams, the mother of two adult sons with varying forms of ASD, doesn’t think any training will ever be enough, especially when handling children of color. One son, Kaqwan, has Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. Williams recalled NYPD officers arresting him as a teenager and that the police did not inform his parents when he was detained. Williams only found out thanks to Kaqwan’s friend informing her. When she went to retrieve him from the station, she recalls hearing an officer referred to her son by an ableist slur. 

Kaqwan is now 31 years old, has graduated from high school, and hasn’t encountered the police in awhile. Williams remains anxious, however. She’s especially concerned about sweeps and involuntary hospitalizations resulting from Mayor Eric Adams’s mental health agenda.

“Every day is scary,” said Williams. “He’ll go to the store and I’m sitting here with bated breath waiting for him to come back. It’s just not something that anybody should have to go through because their child may be exhibiting behavior differently from what we know as the norm. And he gets it. But then he says to me, ‘Well, why should I have to?’

“Because we’re your parents. We love you. And we don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Then there’s the matter of how young Black men are already policed. Kaqwan is over 6 feet tall and weighs around 230 pounds. Williams said his encounters with the police stem from having a friend. 

“If somebody accepted him, he would be willing to go along with them,” she said. “If they did certain things, his judgment wasn’t what it should have been, so he would just follow them and when things would happen, he would get the brunt of it because he didn’t know how to express himself.”

For those unfamiliar with it, ASD is considered a “developmental disability” where a person is limited in social interactions, has repetitive patterns of behaviors, and can be impaired in how they communicate with others, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). According to the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, the prevalence of ASD has been trending up in the U.S. since 2000. 

National CDC data from 2020 also suggests that autism is more prevalent among Black and Hispanic children than white children, and among households with lower incomes. These disparate gaps have narrowed over time, though, mostly due to more equitable identification of ASD.

An education and mental health study from the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), published in 2022, noted a rising trend of New Yorkers on the autism spectrum between 2015 and 2020. The number of adult people in the state with an ASD diagnosis can’t be totally quantified, said the study, because there is no requirement that a person report their diagnosis to the government. However, based on self-reported data, the instances of autism among individuals increased from 20,789 to 27,434 in that five-year span.

“The rate of autism diagnosis is on the rise, including on Staten Island,” said Councilmember Kamillah Hanks, who co-sponsored the bill. “Many of us, including myself, have family, friends, neighbors, or colleagues who are autistic New Yorkers, and it is a priority of mine to ensure their safety and well-being. This bill will provide the NYPD (with) training tools to maximize safety and respect for all autistic New Yorkers, as well as our police officers.”

RELATED: New park in Newark includes playground for children with autism and special needs

Scott Karolidis, director of government relations for YAI: Seeing Beyond Disability (previously known as the Young Adult Institute), said he was honored to have worked with the City Council on making the initiative a reality. YAI supports and invests in programs, like New York Systemic, Therapeutic, Assessment Resources and Treatment (NYSTART)/ Crisis Services for Individuals with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities (CSIDD), that help prevent interactions between people with disabilities and police in the first place, he said.

“We are eager to see the police department implement comprehensive, effective training to ensure that all their officers are appropriately equipped with the skills and sensitivities needed to respond to people with autism,” said Karolidis in a statement.

The NYPD training will include enhancing an officer’s awareness and building a practical understanding of autism and how to respond safely to calls involving these potentially “vulnerable” individuals. 

“While the NYPD currently does have trainings for officers on interacting with individuals with autism spectrum disorder, we were pleased to work with the City Council on this important legislation that will expand our training by requiring that officers receive it biennially, ensuring that they are up to date on the latest best practices,” said a police spokesperson by email.

Police SUVs were recently spotted with a decal celebrating neurodiversity for Autism Awareness month, which was in April. 
Ariama C. Long and Tandy Lau are Report for America corps members and write about politics and public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep them writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.

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