NJ.com: New N.J. law benefits people with Autism and Law Enforcement


Some years back, we helped a teen on the autism spectrum get a summer job at a local camp. The job meant so much to him and helped him grow in many ways. One afternoon, the camp bus broke down on the highway.

The young staffer became agitated by the unexpected delay and deviation from the schedule. His agitation grew worse when a police officer stopped to offer them assistance, as the staffer misunderstood the officer’s presence and became aggressive and belligerent.

Thank G-d the bus driver alerted the officer as to the staffer’s special situation and the officer dealt with the situation in an extraordinary way and did not let it escalate further. Had the circumstances been slightly different, and the bus driver did not advise the officer, and the officer did not respond in such a professional manner, this could have had a much different ending.

This incident highlighted the challenges that individuals with special abilities have when interacting with law enforcement, making S-761, which Governor Murphy signed into law in New Jersey on Monday, such a critical asset.

The law allows people with an autism spectrum disorder or communication disorder to indicate their diagnosis on a state-issued ID card or driver’s license. This means that when a law enforcement officer engages with an individual with unique abilities and has this information on hand, the officer can adjust their actions and words to address the situation productively.

However, it is not enough simply to know that an individual has a potential challenge that might make communicating more difficult. It is crucial that law enforcement receive hands-on training on how best to engage with individuals with special abilities. This is especially true given that research shows that people with special needs are more likely to have encounters with police than their peers.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, advocated to give individuals with special abilities opportunities to be fully immersed in the community and the world. He believed that through shared experiences everyone would gain and grow.

LifeTown, a 53,000-square-foot inclusive center in Livingston, N.J., was created to serve as an incubator to allow the community to experience life together with those who have special abilities. The skills learned at LifeTown, by all those who participate, allow them to apply what they have learned and experienced in the real world. We are so fortunate to have members of the Livingston Police Department volunteer here on a regular basis. These moments raise their understanding and awareness.

It is an understanding we hope to see expanded statewide and beyond. We would welcome any law enforcement agencies that want to come and volunteer and gain hands-on experience interacting with people with amazing and unique abilities.

As Livingston Township Police Chief Gary Marshuetz has said, “We want them to see officers as they would see their brothers, sisters, husbands and wives – just as fellow citizens. And in case they ever do need an officer, we want them to feel comfortable and know we are here to help them navigate their lives.” 

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