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Autism Related Wandering

Autism Awareness and Law Enforcement

By Cari Ansbro

It seems there are frightening, tragic headlines involving law enforcement virtually every day.  For families of people with autism, the concern about their loved one’s world clashing with law enforcement can be terrifying.  Fear, suspicion, and the resulting increase in violence across the world only make things worse.  These families feel particularly uneasy as they have to deal with the daily stresses of autism, as well as negotiate the unpredictability of the outside world.  For many, these issues lead almost inevitably to some form of interaction with law enforcement.

During a crisis, the difference between aid and tragedy often comes down to a law enforcement officer’s familiarity with, and response to, autism.  People on the spectrum often have:  difficulty processing stressful situations, behaviors that are unfamiliar to many, and communication problems.  The biggest question is, of course, is law enforcement prepared to deal with our loved ones in a way that ensures the best outcome?  Unfortunately, the current overarching answer is, “No.” 

Thankfully, there are those who are actively trying to improve these outcomes for people with autism.  Individuals and organizations across the country have taken on the gargantuan task of educating law enforcement and other first responders about autism.

The Autism Websitewas fortunate to get an interview with one of these people.  Sergeant Jimmy Donohoe of the Pensacola Police Department is not only leader of the department’s Crisis Negotiation Team, creator of the Take Me Home program, a member of the Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability’s National Advisory Committee, and a key member of the Autism Society of America’s Safe and Sound Task ForceHe’s also an autism parent.  So it seems natural that he would have a vested interest in raising awareness among his fellow law enforcement officers.  He frequently travels the nation, training other officers on autism.

“I can speak from having worked in their environment and at the same time express my love for my child… I can speak from a father’s perspective as I travel around the United States training first responders,” he says.  This training is part of his work with the Safe and Sound Task Force.  Generally, it’s the local chapters of the Autism Society that make the arrangements and bring in local first responders for this autism training.  Members of the Safe and Sound Task Force travel a couple of times a month and are booked up to a year in advance.

When asked if this training is similar to the brochure for first responders put out by the Autism Society, he said, “The training we do is 4.5 to 5 hours long and much more in depth than the brochure… We give a background on autism because so many of them [the first responders] don’t even know what autism is.  We explain what it is, what the numbers are, what they might expect to encounter, the strength of someone with autism, how to deal with an arrest, the different sensory issues, etc.  We do an hour on elopement [wandering], which is a huge problem in the autism community.  During that hour, we talk about the Take Me Home program.”

Autism training of law enforcement is still largely voluntary in most states.  Some states do have mandatory training, although as Sgt. Donohoe points out, “the problem with ‘mandatory training’ is that it’s not specific enough so some states end up with one paragraph in their textbooks.”  Yes, one paragraph.  States like Florida say they will have autism training, but it’s currently not required.

Sgt. Donohoe admits one of his biggest frustrations in training other law enforcement officers about autism is the widespread resistance to the training.  “They don’t know what they don’t know until after they’ve taken the training. We wear our uniforms and use our firefighter and police humor to connect with them.  Pretty much whatever we can do to get them to engage in the training.  There’s more resistance in law enforcement to the ‘touchy feely’ subjects than the more action-oriented types of training… But we know from the feedback we get afterward that it does make an impact and helps save some lives.  So, we feel strongly that it’s important to get the training to as many first responders as possible.” They often get feedback from police officers who’ve taken the training and realized that they’d had cases involving people with autism, and wish they’d known because they might have handled things differently. 

First responders aren’t the only ones benefiting from this training. “Last year, here in Escambia County, I trained half a dozen of our judges as well as several of our state attorneys so that they can be aware of how autism might figure in to their court cases.  Now they know to look further into it, get more evaluations, and hopefully avoid an injustice.”

What’s Sgt. Donohoe’s most important advice to families of people with autism?

1.                  If possible, arrange to have your family member interact with law enforcement in some positive capacity.  Introduce them to the beat officers in your area so the officers know in advance how to respond to your loved one.  Beat officers get moved around, so you may need to do this regularly.

2.                  Call the sheriff’s/police department in your jurisdiction and have them enter into their computer system that someone with autism lives at your address.  Most of the nation has Computer Automated Dispatching (CAD) and they can flag the address, letting officers know in advance that someone living there has autism, so they can be thinking about how to handle the situation before they get there.

3.                  Put together an information packet for law enforcement officers and other first responders in case your family member goes missing.  If you live somewhere with a Take Me Home program and participate, they’ll already have that information stored.  The Take Me Home program is very effective in helping safely return people who’ve wandered from their homes.  It’s used for Alzheimer’s patients as well as people with autism and other disabilities.  The Take Me Home program is distributed to any law enforcement agency for free (even internationally).  For children, their information should be updated yearly because they change as they grow.  Adults, of course, don’t need their information updated as often.

“We’ve had a lot of success with these programs [Safe and Sound Task Force and Take Me Home], and the whole intent is to save lives by training officers on how to deal with situations involving people on the autism spectrum...  Knowing that we’ve helped improve the outcomes of many situations, it’s worth every minute.”

The training of first responders is key, but there are things we can all do to help ourselves as well as those we look to in emergencies.  Ensuring that we’re prepared with as much information as possible to keep our loved ones safe is the first step.  Forming relationships with our local first responders to help them understand our needs is the next step.  The responsibility belongs to all of us.  But it’s reassuring to know that there are many people working to broaden the awareness and understanding of people with autism, especially when our loved ones are in crisis.

**Cari Ansbro is a writer/ editor at The Autism Website, and mother of two boys on the autism spectrum.** 

​Cari Ansbro writes about parenthood, autism, and her family's adventures and struggles along the way.  She looks for joy and meaning where she can find them, and hopes to encourage others on the same journey by showing them they're not alone.