Mass. emergency workers learn to recognize autism
WRENTHAM, Mass.—Norwood Police Lt. Martin Baker begins his training session with a startling new government statistic: 1 in 88 children in the United States has autism or a related disorder.
Then Baker, whose son has autism, tells the class of 25 police officers, firefighters and other emergency response workers gathered at the Wrentham police station what they can do when they encounter someone with the disorder.
"Use calm, simple language," he says. "Avoid touching or standing behind the person."
But Baker knows it's not as simple as that. So for the next three hours, he gives the group a crash course on how to recognize the signs of autism and how to adapt their usual emergency response techniques to help someone with the disorder.
Over the last eight years, hundreds of classes like Baker's have been held around the state. The Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition, known as ALEC, has trained more than 15,000 emergency workers on how to respond appropriately when they encounter someone with autism, a broad spectrum disorder that affects normal development of social and communication skills.
Typically, the training features a police officer who has a close relative with autism and can describe expected behaviors and suggest ways to deal with people without using force.
Data released in March by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that autism likely affects about 1 million children and teens in the United States. Its new figure of 1 in 88 children means the disorder is nearly twice as common as the government said it was just five years ago. Health officials attribute the increase largely to wider screening for the disorder.
For parents of autistic children, the training is a welcome relief.
Nancy Shea of Brookline says she worries her 22-year-old son, a college student who has social and communication difficulties, will have problems in any encounter with police.
She recalled an incident one night when her son was 17 and a neighbor called police on him and several friends who were talking loudly and doing cartwheels on the lawn.
"My son kept asking the police: `What's wrong? What are we doing wrong? I really want to know what we are doing wrong,'" Shea said. "For someone like my son, that is legitimate. They don't get the whole idea of appearing to be contrite and sorry because it's 2 in the morning and you're a bunch of teenagers making noise.
"I could see the police officer looking at my son. If I hadn't been there, it could easily have escalated," Shea said.
There have been several cases of people with autism being shot by police.
Last year, a jury awarded $1.7 million in damages to the family of an autistic man who was shot and killed by a Los Angeles police officer. According to testimony, the 2008 encounter began amicably, with Mohammad Usman Chaudhry chatting with officers about his shoes and how he stayed dry when it rained. But moments later, an officer shot Chaudhry. Police say Chaudhry pulled a knife on the officer and lunged at him.
In 2007, a Miami teenager who was autistic died after police officers restrained him following an outburst at his home. And in Calumet City, Ill., a 15-year-old boy with Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, was shot and killed by police in February. Police said the boy cut one of the officers with a kitchen knife, and the officer thought his life was in danger.
Dennis Debbaudt, considered the guru of autism trainers for law enforcement, did his first training session for police in Detroit in 1995 and his organization has held classes since then for police departments around the country. He said Massachusetts has one of the most active programs.
Debbaudt, who has a son with autism, said one of the biggest difficulties is that people often do not exhibit obvious signs of the disorder and police may be suddenly taken aback by an unusual movement or reaction.
"If a law enforcement officer came to a scene where someone wouldn't look them in the eye and repeated what the law enforcement officer said ... you could easily make a judgment -- without knowing it's autism -- that there's somebody who must be hiding something," Debbaudt sad.
"A family's greatest fear is that no one will know and our son or daughter won't be able to explain, or they will run off or close in on someone's space. This is how people get hurt."
Martin tells the officers in his class that they must always do what they need to do to keep themselves safe, but he also offers them techniques to help calm autistic people, who can become agitated at the sounds of sirens and dealing with police.
He also tells his class that autism appears differently in different people. Some people with autism are high-functioning; some need help with everyday activities. Some are talkative; others are non-verbal. Some don't like to be touched; others stand too close.
"What might work for one might totally set off another," he said.
Wrentham police officer Derick Cassidy nodded his head throughout Martin's class. His 2-year-old son was diagnosed with autism last year. Cassidy said he appreciates the training as a father and a police officer. He's had to respond to calls for two autistic brothers in town who tend to walk around late at night.
"We'll go there and say: `You've got to head home. You're making people nervous.' But we do it in a gentle way," Cassidy said.
ALEC training coordinator Bill Cannata said the program began at the urging of parents who were concerned that first responders would not know how to deal with their children on emergency calls. Cannata, a Westwood fire captain, has trained fellow firefighters, emergency medical personnel, police and county sheriffs.
ALEC did a training session for state police at Boston's Logan International Airport last month. About a week afterward, one of the state troopers said he saw someone in the airport who he initially believed was behaving suspiciously but soon realized he was dealing with someone with autism.
"He de-escalated the situation," Cannata said. "This story repeats itself all the time. The training pays off."