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BE SAFE The Movie: Helping Improve Understanding Between Law Enforcement, Young People with Autism

BE SAFE Teaching Edition, Lesson 5 By Emily Iland, M.A. Available at

Scientists are not sure what the exact causes of autism spectrum disorder are and there are all sorts of characteristics that vary from person to person.  However, because of the common deficits in social communication and restricted patterns of behavior seen in most people with autism, a potential altercation with the police can prove to be a problem.

People with autism spectrum disorder have significant problems with verbal and non-verbal communication.  Some characteristics include: not answering immediately when spoken to, not responding in a typical way to gestures or tone of voice of others, interpreting what is said literally and missing inferred or implied information.  These features and others can lead to a misunderstanding when police are involved. 

BE SAFE the Movie was made in 2013.  It’s a project that focuses on the relationship between the police and people with autism.  The Movie models safe behavior to follow in different encounters with the police, ranging from an innocent mistake to an arrest scenario.  The film was produced by author and researcher Emily Iland. 

“The reason I made the movie is because I’m the mother of a young man with autism and I’ve been an advocate for 300 families and a leader in the autism field. We have a trend of unfortunate or even disastrous encounters between young adults with autism and similar disabilities and the police. And I thought the first thing we need to do is train the police about disabilities. So I did that. That was the first thing that I did.”

Iland says she worked with the Los Angeles Police Department because she wanted them to understand how to communicate with someone with an invisible disability.  While working with the police, Iland says she realized that the “fight or flight” urge that people usually are able to suppress when dealing with the police can prove to be a problem with people who have autism. 

“However, people with autism and other disabilities have a really hard time suppressing that urge. So they either run from the police, which doesn’t turn out well. Or they fight the police, which doesn’t turn out well.”

With that in mind, Iland created a movie to teach people with autism how to be arrested safely. BE SAFE the movie was created with the Bakersfield Police. Young adults with disabilities from Joey Travolta's Inclusion Films Workshop worked behind the scenes and in front of the cameras interacting with real officers.  Iland shows the film at interactive screenings.  At these events, the audience watched episodes of the movie, and then the police do activities with young people in the audience.  For example, they explain the tools on an officer’s duty belt--which satisfies curiosity while teaching the audience that they shouldn’t touch those objects. 

Iland’s project also includes a curriculum that parents and educators can use to help those with autism and similar disabilities understand what is happening when dealing with the police.  She says the most common reason for a confrontation with the police for a person with autism is usually a misunderstanding. 

“So let’s say for example, a person with autism is rocking and flapping and talking to themselves and maybe pacing back and forth. Somebody sees that and calls the police and say 'That guy’s on drugs' or 'This person is hallucinating.' People get involved when nothing is wrong. The person with autism, to carry out this scenario, the police drive up with their lights and sirens on and the person gets a sensory overload and panics and then they run. Well, if you run the police will chase you so now the chase is on. If you resist arrest when you get caught then you start fighting now it’s escalated to assaulting an officer. And where do you think it goes from there?”

Iland says public awareness and dispelling of the stigma of autism is the next step.  The public needs to be aware, she says, that autism is not a cookie cutter diagnosis.  It manifests differently in each person and that makes it very difficult to pinpoint. 

Iland was in Alaska earlier this month offering two BE SAFE interactive screenings, free to the public.  Alaska Representative Charisse Millet supports programs like BE SAFE because she believes improving interactions with police interaction is important not just for the families involved, but the community as a whole.   

“These opportunities like this, with children with ASD and public safety to get together and understand each other and maybe deescalate situations to the best of our communities. It helps everybody involved and hopefully we’ll avoid anything that ends in a situation where someone’s getting hurt that shouldn’t be getting hurt.”

As well as creating BE SAFE the Movie and the corresponding curriculum, Iland has included different materials in the lesson plans to reach a wide range of learners with ASD and other disabilities.  She is also translating these lessons into Spanish. 

Iland says she is very pleased with the outcome so far and believes the response has been very positive.  For more information on BE SAFE the movie or the curriculum, visit the official website at