Where first re­spon­ders fit in the autism puzzle

Pro­grams ex­ist to train po­lice, EMS work­ers how to han­dle per­sons with men­tal dis­abil­i­ties

The Covington News - - Local News - By Michelle Kim

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.”

Sim­i­larly, peo­ple

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.

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