Autism training helps first responders tailor protocols
By Tara Malone
CHICAGO — A teenage boy with autism slipped into his mother's car last fall and, acting out his favorite movies, went barreling 100 m.p.h. down a road in Naperville. When police gave chase, the flashing lights and sirens frightened him, and he sped even faster. Officers reached him only after he slammed the car into a tree.
The boy was not badly hurt, but his case and others are challenging police officers statewide to reconsider their rule books, as it becomes clear that many standard techniques — such as command tactics, physical maneuvers and crowd-control strategies — could prove dangerous when dealing with people who have autism and do not always react in predictable ways.
On Jan. 1, Illinois joined a growing number of states that require autism-recognition instruction for new officers, prompted by an increasing awareness of the neurological disorder. Several local 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."
Tools to help
Wilmette officers now carry flash cards in their patrol cars to better communicate with autistic people who may struggle to respond verbally.
Northbrook authorities have a wallet-size card cuing them on how best to approach someone with autism — calmly, slowly and, if possible, without flashing lights.
In Naperville, youth officers next month will huddle with educators from the local school district to get tips on interviewing autistic children.
"I know this sounds stupid and naive, but if you can avoid touching the subject, at least at first, it's probably a good idea," attorney Brooke Whitted told nearly three dozen police officers and firefighters from Northbrook during recent training.
Disability poses a challenge for law enforcement officials nationwide.
But autism, often defined by scant social skills, limited verbal communication and uncontrollable impulses, is a distinct hurdle, said clinical psychologist Anne Maxwell, who specializes in autism spectrum disorders and worked with Whitted to train law enforcement officials across the suburbs.
The sweeping range of the disorder precludes a one-size-fits-all response.
"There's no typical person with autism, which makes all of our jobs more challenging," Maxwell told Northbrook authorities.
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 it prompted CDC officials to call it an "urgent public health issue."
Research shows people struggling with autism are seven times more likely than the average person to interact with police, according to Dennis Debbaudt, who wrote "Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals." Many of those encounters are rooted in misunderstanding, he said.
In Wilmette, an encounter three years ago prompted a departmentwide push to teach officers about the disorder.
An autistic teenager had wandered into a local market and helped himself to snack food as freely as he might at home. Police officers questioned him, but he was unable to speak. Only identification in his wallet allowed officers to bring him home, said department social worker Olivia Chui.
"We never want to arrest people who are not acting with criminal intent but because of an illness," Chui said.
Law in Illinois
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 require autism training, said Debbaudt, who trains law enforcement officials nationwide 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 (R-Carol Stream), a former police chief who co-sponsored the legislation.
Visual cues are vital, said Buffalo Grove police social worker Lisa Fowler. Bright lights, loud noises or a cacophony of voices may prove overwhelming for an autistic person.
Simple, straight-forward questions work best, she and other experts said. Eye contact may be difficult and idiomatic expressions confusing. An officer may ask someone with autism if they waive their rights, only to find the person wave at them. And police may find autistic children who blindly repeat what they overheard on television or the school bus.
Such cautions presume officers have the luxury of time. Experts recommend that officers first resolve life-threatening emergencies and threats to public safety.
Then, if circumstances permit, they may get better results in dealing with an autistic person by switching to a calmer, quieter approach.
"If it's an emergency, do what you need to do. But if there's no threat to your safety and anyone else's safety, take a few minutes," Whitted told the Northbrook group.
Training did not begin with the mandate. The organization Autism Speaks offered training for Chicago police in the spring, and it plans to distribute a safety tool kit for the city's first responders by year's end, said Lisa Goring, the group's family services director.
Recruits get training
Recruits in the state's five police academies routinely are primed on how to approach people with special needs.
But the new law prompted many police chiefs to broaden the training to include all officers.
Des Plaines officers had autism training in the spring, said Chief Jim Prandini. The impetus was two-fold, he said: the new legislation and the 2005 case of Hansel Cunningham, an autistic man who died in the custody of Des Plaines police.
The Illinois State Police public integrity task force cleared the officers accused of using excessive force. A civil suit is pending.
"It's an overall awareness of what to be looking for when you're dealing with someone who's out of control or who may not be functioning normally," Prandini said.
Kevin and Beth Hynes developed an emergency plan soon after their son, Killian, now 7, was diagnosed with autism four years ago.
They put locks on the doors of their Naperville home. They registered Killian for a police-issued bracelet to track his whereabouts if he wanders and supplied officers with information about him in the event of an emergency.
Kevin Hynes said the push to train first responders is one more way to keep Killian and others like him safe.
"You need to understand they just act differently," Hynes said.