By Michael YEGHIAYAN
As the United States experiences a sharp rise in the percentage of children diagnosed with autism, campaigns designed to promote a public education of the disorder have become increasingly popular and important in the law enforcement community. During the past week, members of the Glendale Police Dept. participated in a workshop aimed to help raise awareness of autism as part of the department’s schedule of training exercises.
The development of the program and the potential benefit to law enforcement was explained by Sgt. Traci Fox, a GPD training coordinator.
“Many of our officers have experienced more and more encounters with autism in the community,” said Sgt. Fox. “So we brought in [a] speaker to help explain more about autism, and the officers have responded really well. I think it will do great things for the city.”
In addition to a presentation that explored autism symptoms and facts, the officers also heard from a number of children and families who live with the social disorder. They shared their own experiences with the group of police officers who will use the information to improve their ability to respond to a potential call where autism may be a factor.
The focus of the training exercise was to improve an officer’s ability to diffuse a situation and prevent it from escalating. They were instructed in ways to better identify both children with autism and their guardians, who often wear some sort of badge signaling that they are trained to work with autistic children.
Improving communication was also a major topic of the day’s session. Officers were trained to physically model commands to help improve comprehension while speaking in short, simple sentences. The goal was to model police procedure that coincides with methods that children have been taught all their lives, bringing comfort in simplicity and the restoration of a daily routine that has most likely been broken in a situation with police involvement.
Kate Movius, who developed the program with a grant from the organization Autism Speaks, explained the potential difficulties that could arise in an incident involving an autistic child and law enforcement.
“It is difficult for these kids to understand the concept of authority. I find it important for children with autism to be brought to a local precinct and introduced to police officers and be familiarized with them,” she said. “Autistic behavior is often understood as noncompliance, and this is the thing that most often causes problems.”
A common coping mechanism for children with autism is the display of aggressive behavior that could potentially cause problems when interacting with a police officer who lacks an understanding of the symptoms of the disorder.
The discussion also placed a great deal of importance on the role of empathy and understanding when interacting with autistic children, not just from the perspective of police officers but with the larger public as well. Because a child with the disorder may have a limited conceptual understanding of day-to-day activities, meltdowns may happen in public places, causing an incident that would seem highly unusual to a person unfamiliar with the disorder.
Additionally, the officers heard from Barron Barca and his mother, Toni, about high functioning autism and the range of symptoms associated with the disorder.
Asperger syndrome and other autism-related social disorders may be difficult to identify because their symptoms and diagnosis are often concealed by parents who want to avoid labeling. However, social conflicts could arise when involving law enforcement. Barron described some of the difficulties he could face on a daily basis, including bullying in school and social misunderstandings when in a public space.
Clear communication by both parties was identified as the most important element of “de-escalating a potential situation.” This is especially true during a meltdown involving an autistic child; proper communication can serve as the most effective means of diffusing an incident.
Elizabeth Dyer, the mother of a 6-year-old girl diagnosed with autism, described the symptoms of fear and anxiety as especially prevalent in her daughter and potentially problematic in a situation involving law enforcement. Certain apprehensions, like a fear of men, are especially prohibitive in an interaction with an untrained member of law enforcement.
These issues underscore the difficulties in communication, both verbal and nonverbal, that often arise in children diagnosed with a form of autism. They oftentimes require more time to respond, and officers are encouraged to exhibit patience in order to successfully communicate with a person identified as autistic.
The officers also ran scenarios that helped develop strategies to de-escalate a situation and successfully identify an autistic child in the field. The scenarios highlighted the goal of the program – to promote the safest possible outcome of an incident with an autistic child through patience and careful assessment.