The Autism Society of America Mourns the Tragic Loss of Ryan Gainer and Calls for a Shift Towards Mental Health-Focused Emergency Response

March 14, 2024, Rockville, MD – In the wake of the heartbreaking incident that led to the death of Ryan Gainer, a 15-year-old with Autism, during an encounter with law enforcement, the Autism Society of America expresses its deepest condolences to the family and community affected by this tragedy. This devastating event underscores the urgent need for a paradigm shift in how our society responds to Autism, mental health, and behavioral health crises.

Carlean Ponder, Director of the Autism Justice Center with the Autism Society, stated, “The Autism Society of America firmly believes in the importance of providing a mental health response to a mental health crisis. The current system, where law enforcement is often the first to respond to such situations, has repeatedly shown to be inadequate and, tragically, sometimes fatal. Individuals experiencing a mental health or behavioral health crisis require care and understanding, not the potential for escalation. Just as paramedics and EMTs are dispatched for medical emergencies like heart attacks or strokes, so too should specialized professionals be called for mental health and behavioral health crises.

[1] Autistic individuals face significantly higher rates of mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and behavioral outbursts. [2] Non-speaking Autistic children and adults are especially vulnerable in a crisis situation. A lack of effective communication options can further exacerbate these challenges, leading to situations where their needs are not met, and their behaviors are misunderstood.

The Autism Justice Center advocates for the critical funding of mobile crisis units that can serve communities around the clock, alongside the establishment of crisis centers that are accessible on a walk-in basis. It is imperative that mental health professionals and all first responders receive Autism-specific training to ensure they can provide the appropriate care and support needed during a crisis. The Autism Society of America is supporting legislation like the Mental Health Justice Act of 2023, which aims to provide grants to states for the hiring, training, and deployment of mental health professionals to respond to mental health emergencies. This legislation represents a step in the right direction towards creating a safer, more understanding environment for all, especially for Black Autistic individuals and their families, who live with the heightened fear of harm or death during encounters with law enforcement.

The Autism Society’s First Responder Program, Safety on the SpectrumTM, is a national effort to promote safe and equitable interactions between First Responders and the Autism community. This program addresses the need for improved interactions between law enforcement and the Autism community. Safety on the SpectrumTM will be informed and delivered in-person by a training team of first responders, members of the Autism community, parents, social workers, and local community leaders.

Ryan’s death must serve as a catalyst for change. It is time for our society to recognize and address the need for a compassionate, appropriate response to mental and behavioral health crises. The Autism Society of America through its Autism Justice Center, and Safety on the SpectrumTM program, is committed to advocating for these changes and working tirelessly to ensure that no other family has to endure such a preventable loss.

About the Autism Justice Center

Created by the Autism Society of America, the Autism Justice Center focuses on Empowerment, Advocacy, and Justice. The Autism Justice Center is dedicated to advocating for the rights and well-being of individuals with Autism and their families. The Autism Justice Center uses various strategies, including direct advocacy, education, and litigation support. The Autism Justice Center stands as a beacon of hope and support for Autistic individuals, their families, and advocates.

About the Autism Society of America

The Autism Society of America is dedicated to creating connections, empowering everyone in the Autism community with the resources needed to live fully. As the nation’s oldest leading grassroots Autism organization, the Autism Society and its approximately 70 affiliates serve over half a million people each year. By championing initiatives that advance equitable opportunities in healthcare, education, employment, safety, and public policy, the organization executes a national reach, with meaningful local impact. Through education, advocacy, support and community programming, the Autism Society works towards a world in which everyone is connected to the support they need, when they need it. For more information, go to, Facebook, Instagram, X, or LinkedIn.


[1] Police shootings database 2015-2023: Search by race, age, department – Washington Post

[2] Six ideas about how to address the autism mental health crisis – Will Mandy, 2022 (