Local news

Police deal with autism

More states requiring instruction

CHICAGO – A young boy with autism slipped into his mother’s car last fall and barreled 100 mph down a road in Naperville, Ill., like a scene from his favorite movie. When flashing police lights and sirens frightened him, he sped faster. Officers reached him only after he slammed the car into a tree.

Such incidents are challenging police officers statewide to reconsider their rule books as it becomes clear that many techniques they learned at the academy and honed on the job – the command tactics, physical maneuvers and crowd control strategies – could prove dangerous when dealing with autistic people.

On Jan. 1, Illinois joined a growing number of states that require autism awareness instruction for new officers. But several police departments are extending the training to all first-responders, from beat cops to commanders, even as they make clear their specialty is public safety, not psychology.

“We’re certainly not going to try and turn our police officers into diagnosticians. It’s impossible,” said Dan Nelson, legal counsel of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. “We want them to get to a point where they know enough to know who to call.”

One of every 150 children nationwide has an autism spectrum disorder, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year. The findings did not necessarily mean autism is on the rise, but they prompted CDC officials to call it an “urgent public health issue.”

Research shows people with autism are seven times more likely to interact with police, according to Dennis Debbaudt, “Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals” author.

Illinois legislators last fall voted to require that newly recruited officers be taught to identify and interact with people who have “autism and other developmental disabilities.” Florida, Indiana, Maine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania also mandate autism training, said Debbaudt, who trains law enforcement officials on autism awareness. New Jersey legislators last month approved autism preparation for emergency workers.

“It’s a matter of learning a few skills that could turn the situation around,” said Illinois Sen. John Millner, a former police chief who co-sponsored the legislation.

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