Training Helps Ferndale Police Understand Autism

Training Helps Ferndale Police Understand Autism

(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 20, 2021)

Ferndale, MI – Police officers and first responders face a variety of people and situations in their line of work, and now, thanks to training by the Autism Alliance of Michigan, those in Ferndale can be better prepared for positive interactions with those on the Autism spectrum.

Joe Maatman travels around the state doing the training, and he spent time in Ferndale last week doing several small group sessions.  In addition to the police and fire personnel that attended, several members of City Council joined in as well. The training talked about how to recognize someone with Autism and how to have better conversations with them.  He also encourages departments to be proactive about getting to know the kids and adults in one’s community before an emergency situation arises.

The examples are endless. A child wandering off.  A gullible young man talked into delivering drugs.  A woman who is drawn into an intersection because she likes to look at yellow cars.  Someone lost and unable to articulate where home is.

Maatman spoke of a man in his 20s who had never seen a police officer before.  The man’s father was being arrested and he had no idea what was going on, so he jumped on the back of the officer making the arrest.  The man was taken to jail where he was simply inconsolable.  The man’s mother told the police that she could bring him something to calm him down.  It was against protocol to allow her to bring him an item, but the officers made an exception.  The item that brought the man comfort and peace was a photograph of a fire truck that he loved very much.

The thing about people on the spectrum, Maatman explained, is that each one is unique.  There are common behaviors and actions, but apart from that “if you meet one person on the spectrum, you’ve only met one person,” he said.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

The Autism Alliance Training lets officers know that those with Autism may have difficulty with eye contact, difficulty understanding sarcasm, gestures, and personal space, and they may repeat questions that are asked.  Up to 40% of those on the spectrum are not verbal, though there are phone apps that can help with picture-based communication.

They may be irritated by sounds and lights. They  may do repeated, ritualistic behaviors (such as spinning a string around or counting light posts while riding in the car).  And they may have a difficult time when routines are interrupted.

In addition to behavior considerations, police and other emergency personnel should be aware of physical conditions that often pair with Autism, including epilepsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and Tourette syndrome.  Another concern, especially for officers trying to subdue or arrest an individual with Autism is Hypertonia, which means low muscle tone in one’s chest.  “Kids on the spectrum can be very big, very tall, but their chest muscles are weak,” Maatman said.  This puts them at higher risk for suffocation, asphyxiation, and drowning.

The training included a video that showed several people on the spectrum and their parents. Officers watched as a mom asked her son a question, and the son repeated it back then slowly thought about an answer, growing frustrated as he did.  Maatman explained that in a more stressful situation, like a conversation with an officer, those types of responses could be frustrating for the officer and scary for the person involved.  He recommended that officers be patient, and ask for help from a relative who the person feels comfortable communicating with.

There are also kits that police and fire departments can order that contain items that someone with Autism might find soothing, like little toys, sunglasses, and a weighted blanket.

The other thing to know, perhaps the most important, is that when people with autism “wander off” from home, they tend to go to places with water – be it a lake, a pool, a retention pond, or even a fountain.  Over 70% of those with autism who die while wandering off do so by drowning. Knowing this had helped officers around the country find missing people in time to prevent tragedies.

Maatman urged the officers to participate in community outreach to get to know people with special needs.  Ferndale Police and Fire regularly have booths at community events, and the police have held community chats.  They do the Autism training every few years to make sure new recruits get the information.  They also recently introduced a new look for the community engagement vehicle – featuring the brightly colored puzzle pieces that have become a symbol of Autism awareness.

“That car is too cool,” Maatman said. “It shows you really care about the community.”

The efforts do more than just help make the police look good, it helps them know the people in the community and how to relate to them should an incident arise.

Councilperson Greg Pawlica was one of the attendees.  “It was evident that the instructor from the Autism Association of Michigan was quite knowledgeable about autism, and offered a lot of very useful information to our staff regarding the best methods for interacting with people who fall on the autism spectrum,” he said.  “I learned a lot during the session, but most importantly, it was drilled in that ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve only met one person with autism’, and that every person with autism has different triggers and each person has a different method of coping with their situation once that trigger has been released.”

Over 22,000 first responders have taken the Autism Alliance training since the program began in 2011.  Learn more about Autism Alliance at https://autismallianceofmichigan.org/

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