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The loud sirens, flashing lights and oral commands typical of many traffic stops can produce anxiety for people with autism, causing them to act or respond in ways an officer might find strange or even threatening.

States Alert Police to Communication Disabilities During Traffic Stops

By Jonathon Bates | April 8, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

Research suggests nearly 90% of individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are “either overly sensitive to sound, sight, taste, smell or touch, or barely notice them at all.”

These differences in perception can present potential challenges for law enforcement officers who interact with people with autism. A typical traffic stop can entail loud sirens, flashing lights, oral commands and fast approaches. For individuals with autism, this series of events could produce anxiety, causing them to act or respond in ways an officer might find strange or even threatening.

In response, states are developing policies designed to improve communication between law enforcement and emergency medical responders by alerting them of a person’s cognitive disability or hearing impairment. At least 17 states have enacted laws allowing a driver’s license applicant to request a “communication impediment” notation.

Communication notations can reduce stress for drivers and officers alike during interactions that have the potential to escalate into dangerous situations. Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization, recommends that, when interacting with people with autism, law enforcement officers avoid making quick movements, touching or causing loud noises; rather, they should try to give individuals plenty of space and time to process and respond.

Communication impediments can be caused by autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome or Alzheimer’s disease, as well as an intellectual disability or a mental health condition. To obtain a notation on a driver’s license or identification card, an individual must typically submit proof from his or her medical doctor verifying the underlying condition.

Recent State Actions

In 2020, at least four states—Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Washington—approved bills allowing for certain medical notations on licenses. Notably, Michigan’s designation will not be indicated on the license or identification card itself but will be visible to officers when they run license plate numbers through the law enforcement information network. Florida’s new law allows applicants with a developmental disability to request a driver’s license showing a capital letter “D.” And Louisiana’s law requires its Department of Public Safety and Corrections to train law enforcement officers about what to expect when interacting with people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

So far in 2021, Virginia has expanded its law by allowing vehicle registration applicants to indicate that a person with a communication impediment, including autism spectrum disorder and hearing loss, will regularly occupy the vehicle.

States will continue working to ensure the safety of their most vulnerable residents and to help law enforcement officers establish strong bonds with communities they protect. To that end, lawmakers are likely to continue exploring new ways to notate specific communication impediments.

Jonathon Bates is a policy associate in NCSL’s Environment, Energy and Transportation Program.

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