Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Autism and Police: Using Virtual Reality to Train for Safe Interactions

January 10, 2019

For individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), difficulties with social interactions may make communicating with strangers a challenging experience. When the stranger is a police officer, the encounter can quickly become dangerous for everyone involved.

  • In Florida in 2016, police shot a group home therapist in the leg while answering a 911 call about a man who was believed to be mentally ill and armed. It turned out that the therapist was trying to help a man with severe autism. Police shot at the man, whose “weapon” turned out to be a toy truck but hit the therapist instead.
  • Police shot and killed another man with ASD in 2016 during a traffic stop. The man failed to obey the police officer’s commands after being pulled over and then drove away. After stopping and getting out of the car, the man again failed to obey police and was fatally shot.

These devastating incidents illustrate a growing concern among individuals and families in the autism community, as well as law enforcement and behavioral health professionals: Some of the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder – social anxiety, unusual gestures, reduced eye contact and difficulty processing verbal and body language— can resemble a police officer’s standard profile of a suspicious person. Add flashing lights, and the blare of a siren, and it can be paralyzing for someone with autism, who may have extreme sensitivity to light, sound or touch.


Dr. Julia Parish-Morris

Current Gaps in Research

Research shows that 1 in 5 young adults with ASD will be stopped and questioned by police before age 21. It’s therefore critical to teach individuals with ASD at an early age how to safely interact with police. While many police departments around the country offer training to help officers recognize and respond to people who have social and cognitive challenges, these trainings are often not mandated, and individuals with ASD rarely receive training that involves active participation.

Enter the Center for Autism Research (CAR) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. CAR scientists Julia Parish-Morris, PhD and Joseph McCleery PhD, are partnering with a Washington, D.C. virtual reality (VR) tech startup, Floreo Inc., to test the effectiveness of a VR tool to improve the safety of interactions between police and adolescents and adults with ASD. The study is funded by a 2017 grant for $1.7 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

VR offers individuals the opportunity to practice safe interactions with a police officer in simulations that are close to real-life experiences. A big plus for the study was the fact that most of the participants in the initial test group already had some experience with VR headsets, noted Dr. Parish-Morris. “Overall, we found that the VR technology was extremely well-tolerated by participants.”

The researchers are also collaborating with the Philadelphia Police Department and have workshopped possible interventions with officers to get their feedback, Dr. Parish-Morris said. “They’ve been incredibly supportive.”

Looking Ahead

The researchers will develop behavioral supports and materials to help participants navigate three sessions of an intervention while Floreo creates a new, expanded VR intervention curriculum for individuals with ASD. “An individual with ASD will be able to practice interacting with police officers across a variety of different contexts—tall police officers, short police officers, day, night, urban, suburban—that’s the beauty of immersive VR,” explained Dr. Parish-Morris.

Learning what to do and what not to do will be an important part of the training, as will having the opportunity to practice the right behaviors. For example, individuals with ASD may exhibit differences in eye contact which may be misinterpreted as avoiding questioning or looking for a way to escape, said Dr. Parish-Morris. The VR training program will also let parents and/or therapists observe the child’s behavior and provide feedback and instruction in real time.

“We know that practicing social interactions and a range of appropriate responses is important for people with ASD, so the intervention will include opportunities to practice a variety of different scenarios," explained Dr. Parish-Morris. "Immersive VR gives us a unique and important opportunity to help individuals practice critical interactions that will help them stay safe and increase their ability to live independently in their communities.”

For resources from CHOP's Center for Autism Research on building safe interactions between individuals with ASD and first responders, click here.

Individuals with ASD 12 years and older who are interested in participating in this research should contact Ashley Zitter at ZITTERA@email.chop.edu. Randomized control trials of the new VR curriculum are expected to start in the spring.