Police trained on how to respond to people with autism

Story highlights

  • Virginia law enforcement departments trained on how to recognize signs and symptoms of autism
  • Training can help prevent misunderstandings and escalations, police said

(CNN)Didi Zaryczny's 12-year old son had a fascination with calling 911. He had been taught in school to call the number in case of an emergency and decided to try it at home.

He has autism and was captivated by the comforting repetition of the dispatcher's tone and voice; he would often dial, then quickly hang up. One evening, he forgot to hang up the phone before running to hide in his closet. Shortly after, an officer arrived at their home.
    "Did you mean to call 911?" The officer asked. Yes, Zaryczny's son replied. "Is there an emergency?" No.
    This was a red flag.
    "Any officer could think that this child is being smart with him, being disrespectful," Zaryczny, of Bedford County, Virginia, said.
    She explained to the officer that her son had autism, and that even though she and her husband would take turns watching him in 12-hour shifts, they had missed this call. Zaryczny noted an immediate change in the officer's demeanor as he began to understand.
    This is the type of situation Zaryczny shares as the public safety training coordinator for Commonwealth Autism, a nonprofit organization in Richmond, Virginia, which works to train first responders, including law enforcement, medical and judicial personnel about how to respond to people with autism. It also trains new instructors, allowing agencies with limited budgets to share information with colleagues.
    In the training, they learn to recognize certain restrictive and repetitive behaviors associated with autism, and learn about recommended responses. It can help to mitigate misunderstandings and prevent situations from escalating.
    Participants discuss possible scenarios that they might see, such as wandering, lack of eye contact and violent behavior, and scenarios that might appear to be crimes. Zaryczny said her son was irritated by the sound of the checkout machines at the grocery store, for example, and would often walk out of the store without paying for his food.
    Last year, the Lynchburg Police Department in Virginia became the first police department to train all its officers to recognize signs and symptoms of autism. Their entire staff was trained, from the chief of police to the office support staff.
    "The training has been very well-received by the officers because it helps them recognize how they can better serve their community," Lynchburg police Lt. Malcolm Booker said. This training is now being offered to the Lynchburg Sheriff's Office as well.
    "You would respond to people who have autism differently than someone who doesn't," Booker said. "It's about making our officers aware of this possibility because these encounters are more and more likely today."
    According to the latest statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children has autism.
    Lindsay Naeder, director of the autism response team at Autism Speaks, said training law enforcement is an important step in preventing misunderstandings. The organization's Autism Safety Project also offers resources for law enforcement.
    "Autism is sometimes referred to as an invisible disability," Naeder said, "and people with autism are in every single community."
    Training law enforcement has been important not only in promoting positive interactions between officers and autistic individuals, but also in opening a dialogue with their families, Zaryczny said.
    "Families were sometimes afraid to call 911 during meltdowns because they didn't know if the officers knew anything about autism. Families are now more apt to call 911 for help," Zaryczny said.
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    Commonwealth Autism hopes to implement online training to make the sessions more accessible to first responders in their immediate reach. Zaryczny also advocates for events where members of law enforcement can interact with the autistic community and get to know each other in a noncrisis setting.
    "It's important that my son know that he can go to law enforcement in case of an issue and that they will understand more about him," Zaryczny said.