Where first responders fit in the autism puzzle
Programs exist to train police, EMS workers how to handle persons with mental disabilities
Linda Parker realized there was a ways to go in autism awareness during an encounter with law enforcement last summer.
Her 12- year- old grandson, who had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder several years before, was in the middle of switching from a medication that made him act more aggressively.
He came home from school upset and began acting up. Although he was only in sixth grade, he was almost stronger than her, and she realized she might need a little extra backup.
Parker explained to the responding deputy that her grandson was a special needs child.
“ He said to him, ‘Are you giving your parents trouble, punk,’’ Parker recalled.
“ I said ‘ Hold on, this child has autism.’ He said, ‘ It doesn’t matter. He still needs to be taught respect.’”
The encounter left her grandson with a lasting fear of law enforcement and Parker feeling that there could have been a better way to handle the situation.
Police officers and deputies are often the first responders to crisis situations involving people with developmental disabilities.
But training about autism and other developmental disorders is just now starting to catch up with the rapidly rising numbers of people being diagnosed.
About one in every 150 children is diagnosed with ASD, with boys about four times more likely than girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Georgia, the rate is higher, with one in every 131 children diagnosed, according to the Georgia office of Autism Speaks, a non- profit advocacy group.
ASD is a set of developmental and neurological disorders typically marked by impaired social and communication skills, although the symptoms can be different and unique for each child. The disorders range from the high functioning, such as Asperger’s syndrome, to the non- verbal or lower functioning. The cause for it is unknown and there is no cure, but experts recommend that early diagnosis and intervention can improve a child’s chances at functioning well in society.
Dealing with people with developmental or brain disabilities is all about doing things differently, said Dennis Debbaudt, a trainer and speaker on autism and law enforcement. “ You have standard procedure, and then you have special tactics. When you know you’re interacting with someone with autism, that would be the time to do something a bit differently.”
Debbaudt, a former police officer in the Detroit area whose 24- year- old son has ASD, has over two decades of experience in training agencies on the different techniques and considerations involved in responding to people with autism.
Having autism is a bit like being a visitor in a foreign country and speaking the native language poorly, said Debbaudt. “ In poor Spanish, you can still rent a room, get food, buy clothes,” he said. “ But a person in Mexico might speak to you in Spanish and you don’t know what they’re talking about.”
with autism might be able to function in society and seem like they understand what’s going on, but can still have problems processing information or communicating.
“ It depends on the person,” said Linda Kurtz, a former board member of the Autism Society of America and mother of a 7- year- old boy diagnosed with ASD. She said her son loved flashing lights and was not sensitive to touch. “ People think they know because they’ve gotten a few catchphrases, but the symptoms are so particular to the individual.”
Debbaudt said society has progressed from when he first started giving talks.
“ The level of understanding 22 years ago, compared to now, is like night and day, without a doubt. People didn’t know what autism was in the ‘ 80s,” he said.
But in Georgia, programs to address developmental disabilities are still a relatively new phenomenon.
The Crisis Intervention Team training program developed by the National Alliance on Mental Health, operated through the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, funded by the Department of Human Resources and based on the program in Memphis, Tenn., began in Georgia began about four years ago, with the backing of GBI Director Vernon Keenan.
Georgia is one of the few states to implement the program through a top- down approach, said Nora Haynes, president of the board of NAMI- Georgia, partly because of Keenan’s support. He felt it would save the GBI time and effort by reducing arrests and preventing the kind of incidents that they might have to investigate, said Haynes.
The first part of the intensive, 40- hour program educates officers on all types of brain disabilities, including mental illnesses, autism, mental retardation Alzheimer’s disease.
In the second part, officers are taught techniques to de- escalate crisis situations through communication rather than use of force.
The attendees also speak with people or families of people who currently have different disabilities or mental illnesses and encountered law enforcement.
“At the beginning of the class, you have a bunch of burly officers sitting there with their arms crossed going, ‘ Oh God, here we go.’ But at the end of the class, they go ‘ Wow, I didn’t know all these things,’” said Haynes.
“ The police officer, the victim, the perpetrator — everyone’s safety is improved when you have this kind of training,” said Mary Yoder, executive director of the Atlanta Alliance on Developmental Disabilities, which teaches the portion of the CIT program addressing developmental disabilities.
In Newton County, sheriff ’s deputies are receiving the benefit of the CIT training received last fall by Investigator Paul Gunter, the appointed agency training coordinator.
He said he is currently incorporating what he’s learned into the regular training deputies have, and pointed to a recently implemented 4- hour course on handling people all kinds of disabilities, ranging from physical limitations such blindness, the hearing- impaired, mental illnesses, and developmental illnesses.
The Covington Police Department sent several of its officers to the training as well, and now has at least one CIT- trained officer per shift, said Lt. Wendell Wagstaff.