Police & Law Enforcement: Interacting with People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Interacting with people with disabilities can be easy if you know what to look for. We go over common traits, do's and dont's, and other ways to interact with individuals.
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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all State and local governments’ services, programs, and employment. Law enforcement agencies are covered because they are programs of State or local governments. The ADA affects virtually everything that law enforcement personnel do, such as:

  • receiving citizen complaints
  • interrogating witnesses
  • arresting, booking, and holding suspects
  • operating telephone (911) emergency centers
  • providing emergency medical services
  • enforcing laws
  • and other duties required to protect and serve the community

Developmental and intellectual disabilities (IDD) cover a diverse group of chronic conditions that are due to mental or physical impairments, or both, that are usually identified before adulthood. The exact definition of IDD, as well as the different types or categories of IDD, may vary depending on the source of the information.

In general, people with these disabilities may have significant intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior limitations, varying degrees of learning abilities, and difficulties applying knowledge.  

IDDs include conditions that significantly impair a person’s general intellectual and/or adaptive functioning, such as:

  • Autism
  • Behavior disorders
  • Brain injury
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Down syndrome
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Spina Bifida
  • Epilepsy/seizure disorder
  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • (Not an exhaustive list)

When law enforcement personnel interact with a person with IDD, there is no one trait or characteristic that defines everyone. In fact, some of the traits exhibited can resemble what a police officer may consider to be suspicious behavior. Flashing lights, a shrieking siren, or a blasting bullhorn can immobilize someone, or delay their response, due to extreme sensitivity to light, sound, or touch, because of a disability. This guide will look at some common traits and strategies for interacting with people with IDD.

Common Traits/Characteristics

Autistic individuals or those with an  IDD might:

  • Have a diminished sense of danger and wander to bodies of water, traffic, or other hazardous situations
  • Be overwhelmed by police presence
  • Fear a person in uniform or exhibit curiosity and reach for objects/equipment/personnel
  • React with ‘fight’, ‘flight’, or ‘freeze’
  • Not respond to his/her name, or to ‘stop’, or to other commands
  • Have delayed speech and language skills
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Engage in repetitive behavior (rocking, stimming, hand flapping, spinning)
  • Have sensory perception issues (vomiting or diving under a table at the sound of a leaf blower; screaming when touched; recoiling from the textures of certain foods)

Interaction with Autistic Individuals or Others with IDD

  • Explain fully to the individual who you are, why you are there, what is expected of them.
  • Use simple or ordinary language. Avoid complicated questions, don’t use slang.
  • Avoid asking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions – the natural tendency to please may result in telling you what they think you want to hear.
  • Address one issue at a time.
  • Ask questions to make sure the person understands you, and you understand them. Use summary questions to repeat what you think they meant.
  • Develop a rapport with the person.
  • Be calm and patient – in general, interaction with someone with an IDD will require more time.
  • Give the person space and time to process and respond – someone with IDD may need more space to feel comfortable.
  • Be alert to signs of increased frustration and try to eliminate the source if possible, as the behavior may escalate.
  • Avoid quick movements and loud noises.
  • Do not touch the person unless absolutely necessary.
  • Address an adult as an adult - not a child. Do not assume that this person has limited cognitive skills. S/he may understand every word you say but may have difficulty responding verbally.
  • Speak directly to the person.
  • Do not rely on stereotypes or assumptions. Disabilities can manifest in a variety of ways, and within a diverse cross-section of our society.

Strategies for Communicating with People with IDD


  • Gain the person’s attention (‘Sean, are you ready to answer some questions?’)
  • Give positive feedback about the process of the interview (‘You’re doing a great job of thinking about my questions.’)
  • Restate the focus of the interview (‘I need to know some more about what happened in the parking lot.’)
  • Instruct the person to try to concentrate (‘Take a pause and see if there’s more you can remember about the activity in question.’)
  • Repeat the question calmly when the person does not answer
  • Ask the individual to demonstrate or show what she/he meant (‘Can you show me with your hands how you used the spray paint?’)
  • Ask the person to clarify something that was said (‘I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that, the lady wore a red what?’)


  • Tell the person there is more to tell (‘I know that there is more to tell about the situation you haven’t told me.’)
  • Use bribery (‘If you remember one more thing, I’ll buy you a soda.’)
  • Criticize the person if he/she does not provide an immediate response (‘Hurry up, we don’t have all day.’)
  • Ask if the person is sure about his/her response (‘Are you sure the car was red and not black?’)
  • Dispute what the person says (‘I think you’re tricking me, I think the store was closed on that day.’)

Common Questions

What types of modifications does the ADA require?

The ADA requires law enforcement agencies to make reasonable modifications in their policies, practices, and procedures that are necessary to ensure accessibility for individuals with disabilities, unless making such modifications would fundamentally alter the program or service involved. There are many ways in which police or sheriff’s department might need to modify normal practices to accommodate a person with a disability.

Personnel can check for understanding by asking the individual such questions as: “What is a lawyer?”, “How might a lawyer help you?”, or asking the individual to show an example of what a right is. Using simple language or pictures and symbols, speaking slowly and clearly, and asking concrete questions, are all ways to communicate with individuals with an IDD.

Informal practices may also need to be modified. Sometimes, because of the demand for police services, third party calls, like through a relay service, are treated less seriously. Police officers should keep in mind that calling through a third party may be the only option for individuals with certain types of disabilities.

What if someone is demonstrating threatening behavior because of their disability?

Police officers may, of course, respond appropriately to real threats to health or safety, even if an individual’s actions are a result of their disability. But it is important that police officers are trained to distinguish behaviors that pose a real risk from behaviors that do not, and to recognize when an individual, such as someone who is having a seizure or exhibiting signs of psychotic crisis, needs medical attention. It is also important that behaviors resulting from a disability not be criminalized where no crime has been committed.

Avoid these scenarios:

  • A store owner calls to report that an apparently homeless person has been in front of the store for an hour, and customers are complaining that he appears to be talking to himself. The individual, who has mental illness, is violating no loitering or panhandling laws. Officers arriving on the scene arrest him even though he is violating no laws.
  • Police receive a call in the middle of the night about a teenager with a mental illness who is beyond the control of her parents. All attempts to get services for the teenager at that hour fail, so the responding officer arrests her until he can get her into treatment. She ends up with a record, even though she committed no offense.
  • Unexpected actions taken by some individuals with disabilities may be misconstrued by officers or deputies as suspicious or illegal activity or uncooperative behavior.
  • Individuals who have an IDD (as well as someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, has a speech disability, or is blind or low vision) may not recognize or be able to respond to police directions. These individuals may erroneously be perceived as uncooperative.

The Rocky Mountain ADA Center is not an enforcement agency, nor does it provide advocacy services. The information and materials provided by the center are intended solely as informal guidance and are not a determination of your legal rights or responsibilities. All communication with the center is strictly confidential.

For possible additional resources, please see our resources page or contact the Rocky Mountain ADA Center through our Technical Assistance Form or call us directly at 800-949-4232.