By Sarah Schwartz for edweek.org
Being approached by a police officer can be a stressful situation for any teenager. But for students with autism, encounters with law enforcement can be especially dangerous.
Children with autism spectrum disorder may not be able to respond to directions or questions from the police. They may avoid eye contact, or be hyperfocused on something else. Police can interpret these behaviors as defiance or aggression.
In attempts to keep kids safe, some autism advocates have created guides for children and their families that encourage building relationships with local law enforcement, or practicing specific ways to act and speak in front of the police.
One company is taking this training a step further, placing students in a virtual interaction with an officer.
Floreo, an educational virtual reality program for students with autism, offers seven different lessons that students can experience through a VR headset. Some focus on foundational social skills, like nonverbal communication. Others, like the police interaction simulation, give students an opportunity to practice and problem-solve in situations that they may encounter in the real world. One of these modules has students practice crossing the street; another that’s currently in development walks students through an airport TSA checkpoint.
Prepping students for police interactions is controversial: Some critics say that it’s the police who need to be trained to better serve the community, and it’s not fair to place this burden on children. And strategies that work for white children might not for black children, they say, noting recent high-profile police shootings of young, unarmed black men.
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