National Center on Criminal Justice & Disability

Shining a Light on Traditionally Hidden Disabilities – The National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (Part Two)

arc logo“I don't know how to recognize intellectual disability. But if there are certain guidelines, certain hints about how to recognize people with this disability, then maybe we should know more about them, instead of just saying, ‘Oh well, he's just stupid.' Maybe if we were a bit more aware of things to look out for...” – quote from a police officer

Police officers often receive little or no training about hidden disabilities and often don't know what to look for when they suspect something is “off” about a person. Officers may receive crisis intervention training or some education on mental illness, but there is still a lack of information on the hidden disabilities overall.

Hidden disabilities affect a person's brain and can cause difficulty with mental tasks such as learning, reasoning, planning, abstract thinking, and judgment. The broad term for these types of disabilities is “developmental disabilities,” which can include intellectual disability, autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, developmental delay, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), and other disorders that occur during the developmental period (birth to age 18). People with intellectual disabilities have significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior (which covers many everyday social and practical living skills). People with I/DD (Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities) typically have difficulty with the following:

  • Learning/processing information
  • Using abstract thinking
  • Using practical problem-solving skills
  • Generalizing knowledge
  • Having long-term perspective or ability to understand cause and effect
  • Understanding consequences of their actions
  • Making connections/friendships with others, and will risk their own safety to obtain this
  • Being leaders and are often followers, are easily manipulated, and take everything at face value
  • Reading between the lines and are often too trusting of authority figures, very anxious to please

People with intellectual or developmental disabilities, in particular, pose a very real challenge to the criminal justice system because their disability is hard to identify, and many times people with I/DD do not want to reveal their disability. They may even pretend to understand in an effort to mask disability.1

Examples of common hidden disabilities seen in the criminal justice system:

“Mild” intellectual disability:

While a significant amount of people have I/DD (2-3 percent of the general population),2 out of that number a vast majority have “mild” I/DD. Anywhere from 85 to 89 percent of people with intellectual disability have a “mild” intellectual disability that is not recognizable by outward appearance. This can lead to very real problems for the person with a disability, whether victim or suspect. People with “mild” intellectual disabilities can often acquire academic skills up to the 6th grade level. They can become fairly self-sufficient and in some cases live independently with community and social support. Note that the term “mild” is used in quotes because the term itself can be misleading. The term “mild” is used only in comparison to the other categories of ID and is in no way a less significant disability.

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Most people are aware that the rate of autism is on the rise. CDC reports that one in 68 children has autism.3 Autism is characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math, and art.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD):

CDC studies have shown that 0.2 to 1.5 cases of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) occur for every 1,000 live births in certain areas of the United States.4 Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are caused by a woman drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol in the mother's blood passes to the baby through the umbilical cord, which can then damage the baby's brain. The effects of FASD can include physical problems and problems with behavior and learning. Often, a person with an FASD has a mix of these problems. FASDs last a lifetime. There is no cure for FASDs, but research shows that early intervention treatment services can improve a child's development.

How Police Officers Can Spot HIDDEN DISABILITIES: TWO STEPS—Look deeper and slow down

Once disabilities are identified, officers are much more likely to take steps leading to safe and successful outcomes for all concerned. Officers can remember these two steps next time they encounter a person with hidden disabilities:

1. Look deeper: Hidden disabilities are identified by behavior, not appearance. Examples include intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), autism, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Common traits of people with hidden disabilities include the following:

  • Pretending to understand when they do not
  • Strong desire to please authority figures
  • Wanting to hide disability from others
  • Sensitive to touch, sounds, and lights
  • Anxious/nervous appearance or self-stimulation like hand flapping/rocking
  • Lack of impulse control leading to explosive episodes
  • Vulnerable to peer pressure and poor judgment
  • Difficulty with eye contact and responding to commands
  • Cannot understand legal concepts or Miranda rights
2. Slow down:

Officers may prevent potential crisis by trying these strategies:

  • Get your supervisor/support staff to the scene
  • Call the person's support staff/advocate
  • Avoid confrontational tactics—boxing in or staring will not work
  • Speak in a normal, calm, non-confrontational tone
  • Avoid touching or unnecessary restraint
  • Avoid overreliance on weapons
  • Do not question the person without an advocate
Ask Yourself:
  • What is really going on here?
  • How could disability be playing a role?
  • Whom can I call for support or assistance?

To learn more about this topic, contact the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD). NCCJD's goal is to build the capacity of the criminal justice system to respond to gaps in existing services for people with disabilities, focusing on people with I/DD who remain a hidden population within the criminal justice system with little or no access to advocacy supports or services. Police officers and other first responders are key to ensuring positive outcomes for people with I/DD and their families. To learn more about NCCJD, request assistance with a specific case or training, visit NCCJD's website.

Leigh Ann Davis
Program Manager, Justice Initiatives
The Arc


1 See appendix A for The Arc and AAIDD's position statement on Criminal Justice. It is a joint position statement currently undergoing update and review.
2 Daily, D.K., Holly H. Ardinger, and Grace E. Holmes, “Identification and Evaluation of Mental Retardation,” American Family Physician 61(4): 1059–67, PMID 10706158..
3 “Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last modified March 24, 2014,
4 “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs),” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last modified May 23, 2014,

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