How Police Departments and Community Partners Are Coordinating Care for Autistic Youth in Crisis

police car

Autistic youth experiencing mental health crises face higher risks and are more likely to have negative interactions with police. To identify how police departments and other non-police community partners – like school districts and community crisis centers – are supporting autistic youth in suicidal crisis, researchers from Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute aimed to develop and test a new county-level social network measure of care coordination.

Recently published in a special issue of Policing: An International Journal, the study introduced new tools and approaches to find the gaps in care coordination. The goal of the study is to assist law enforcement in building their capacity to critically look at and improve how they connect people to care and how they work with other non-police community partners, especially during crisis situations with autistic youth. This study is part of a larger study, titled the “Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Garrett Lee Smith State/Tribal Youth Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention Program.”

Using a county-level survey, police departments and other social service agencies, crisis centers, healthcare agencies and education organizations self-reported their capacity to support autistic youth in suicidal crisis and completed an original social network survey of care coordination connections for autistic youth during suicidal crisis.

Social network analysis led by Elizabeth McGhee Hassrick, PhD, an assistant professor in the Autism Institute, found that police departments reported less support for autistic youth going through a suicidal crisis (19%) than non-police organizations (35%). But findings from the social network measure suggest higher levels of care coordination for both police and non-police organizations than was self-reported, with 54% of police departments and 77% of non-police organizations having at least one connection for coordinating care for autistic youth in a suicidal crisis.

The research team compared two east coast counties in the United States (which were given pseudonyms in the report) that shared similar characteristics, like size and demographics. They were able to determine that police department care coordination varied by county, with significant differences in amount and network structure of police integration across the counties. Although researchers noted that a larger sample of counties is needed for generalizable results.

In the county with the most police engagement (71% of police departments), all engaged police departments were connected to one non-police organization, which in turn was connected to all centrally engaged non-police organizations in the county. The other county had a lead police structure, where one police department had multiple connections to non-police organizations from different systems that were in turn connected to a few highly central non-police organizations in the county.

While further studies are needed to determine why different types of coordination structures emerged in each county and which kinds of coordination structures would yield better outcomes for autistic youth experiencing suicidal crisis, these data suggest that both counties would benefit from greater awareness about police integration in the care coordination process for autistic youth said McGhee Hassrick.

Additionally, the study investigated how police determine if a youth has a diagnosis of autism. All police departments that reported engaging with autistic youth relied on caregiver report and most relied on reports from teachers/school counselors and onsite staff. 

Ultimately, over half of the police departments were connected to non-police organizations to coordinate care for autistic youth in suicidal crisis, however, far fewer – only 20% – self-reported that their department supported an autistic youth going through a crisis.

“This inconsistency between the self-reported low amount of support for autistic youth by police departments and the higher amount of care coordination with police reported by non-police organizations suggests that police departments may not be aware that the youth they’re providing care coordination for during a suicidal crisis is autistic,” said McGhee Hassrick.

While the research team notes several organizations from each county did not participate in the survey and there are missing data about the number of autistic youths, which only partially represents the amount of care coordination in each county, their findings point to the use of more rigorous, proven network approaches to gain better awareness among police departments about how they engage in support for autistic youth experiencing crisis with the system of providers in their local counties.

“The findings point to greater urgency in organizational or system-level solutions for police departments to identify and support autistic youth who experience mental health crises,” said McGhee Hassrick. “We should continue to identify and fund appropriate services and programs that are needed by autistic youth in crisis, ensure that the police know how to identify a suicidal crisis and connect autistic people in crisis to the appropriate care with non-police community partners.”