An auditorium filled with cops sat in rapt attention as Gary Weitzen, Executive Director of POAC (Parents of Autistic Children), blended stories of his own struggle with raising an autistic son with the need for law enforcement to gain a clearer perspective of what living with autism means, and how it will affect their professional lives.
As one police officer said after attending the training, "I knew the signs of autism in my head, but after this, I now know the pain of it in my heart."
The Dumont Police Department, in conjunction with POAC, offered training to all members of Bergen County law enforcement Monday at Dumont High School. The program was recently offered by the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute and attended by Michael Conner, a lieutenant in the Dumont Police Department. Conner was so impressed by Weitzen's presentation, that he decided to bring the training to Dumont and offer it to the other police departments as well.
"The presentation I attended at the County was outstanding and made me realize that there is an entire population of people we, as first responders, do not understand," Conner said. "I was surprised at how poorly attended it was, especially in light of the increasing number of children with autism who are a part of every community and rapidly aging into teenagers and adults."
New Milford Chief of Police Frank Papapietro mandated that all of his officers attend Monday's training.
"Not only does New Milford house a specialized school for children with autism, but the New Milford School system has the Inner Bridge Crossing program for children on the spectrum," Papapietro said.
"It's extremely important that every officer is aware of the sensitivity needed in serving the special needs required by the autistic community," Papapietro said. "Whether it's autism, mental illness, or any other neurological disorder, I want my department to be well prepared to deal with any situation they may encounter while responding to a call."
According to Dumont Police Chief Brian Venezio, and echoed by Papapietro, autism training is important for everyone, but especially for each department's newer members who are still balancing the requirements of law enforcement with the need to provide services to the community that extend beyond the enforcement of laws. Both chiefs believe that every granular piece of information received in training can positively change the entire course of an interaction an officer has with a citizen, disabled or not.
"Training builds understanding," Papapietro said. "And that's the bridge I want to proactively build between my department and the community we serve."
Weitzen stressed to the audience of police officers that autism is not mental retardation and often carries no distinguishing physical characteristics. It is a neurological developmental disorder marked by communication and behavioral issues, and varying from high functioning with superior language skills to low functioning with minimal to no language skills accompanied by intense sensory disorders.
Because children with autism almost always have a communication delay or cannot verbally communicate at all, it is very challenging to get basic information from them such as their name and address. When someone with autism encounters a stranger or find themselves in an unfamiliar place, their fear and anxiety will increase. When their fear and anxiety increase, their ability to communicate will decrease.
Lights, sirens, rapid questioning by police can all contribute to sensory overload which can cause negative behaviors to emerge--behaviors that, to the untrained eye, may appear aggressive.
Understanding basic rights can also be challenging to a person with autism. One video showed a series of people with autism being read their Miranda rights. In each situation, when officers asked if they understood what it meant to "waive your rights," they waved their hands.
Weitzen said that one of the most common types of police calls involving those affected by autism is wandering from the safety of their own home. According to the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), a study published October 2012 in the journal Pediatrics found that nearly half of children with autism are reported to wander or bolt, and more than half of these children go missing.
Weitzen related the story of his own son, who at three-years old managed to unlock the front door and leave the house while his mother was in the bathroom. Minutes later she emerged to find him missing. She ran from the house in search of him and, living near water, followed her instinct and went in that direction. She arrived to see her son's head bobbing up and down far out in the water. Fully clothed, she jumped in and swam to him. Reaching him, he got a tight grip on her neck and she began to swim back to shore, but her clothes and shoes were weighing her down and she had a hard time staying above the water. When she was not taking in water, she managed to scream. A sheriff's officer, just arriving home from his shift, heard her screams and followed them to the water. Seeing mother and son bobbing up and down, he jumped in to rescue them. He first got the boy safely to land and then the mother, whom he had to resuscitate.
"Had he not been in that place at that time, I would have lost both my wife and my son," Weitzen said. "But that is a very small glimpse into life with autism."
If you, or someone you know, has a child with autism, notify your local police department and they will flag your address in their 911 system so that if a 911 call comes in, law enforcement will know that they are responding to a call involving a person with autism.
If you would like to learn about more training opportunities, click here to contact POAC.