The teenage boy paces from the front of the class to the back. His head is down. He is speaking repetitively to himself under his breath, demonstrating unusual hand and arm movements. The police officer approaches slowly, gently. He carefully begins asking specific questions. “What is your name?” “Should we sit down and talk about it?”
The boy does not respond to these questions, but his pace slows. As the officer gently speaks, the boy makes brief, fleeting eye contact, then drops his gaze. The mood lifts slightly and soon the sense of urgency begins to fade.
It sounds very real, but this is actually a special autism training program for law enforcement that helps show officers what behaviors to look for in children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The goal of this training program, created by Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, is to teach officers how to effectively engage with individuals with ASD. This will increase positive outcomes by enabling officers to successfully diffuse crisis situations involving individuals with ASD that may otherwise result in arrest or Baker Act, says Lauren Gardner, Ph.D., administrative director of the Autism Program and psychology internship training director at the hospital. When unaware of the social communications deficits and restricted, repetitive behaviors commonly associated with ASD, law enforcement officers may mistakenly view these individuals as a danger to themselves or others.
Each individual with autism is unique; however, awareness of core symptoms of ASD will enable law enforcement officers to recognize when individuals may be presenting with behaviors commonly associated with ASD. Social communications deficits may include poor eye contact, limited expressive language and delays in responding to others in conversation. Restricted and repetitive behaviors may include hand flapping, and unusual arm and body movements, repetitive speech patterns, and intense interests. These individuals may also present with sensory aversions including adverse reactions to loud noises, flashing lights, and aversion to touch.
Because of this, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital has designed a training course for law enforcement officers in recognizing signs and symptoms of ASD, with the goal of increasing officers’ confidence and competence in responding to calls involving individuals with autism. The interactive training course includes simulation training that allows officers to practice how to communicate with an individual with autism in a variety of training scenarios that they are likely to encounter following a morning of classroom training. The extensive program, funded by a $95,000 grant from the Cigna Foundation, is believed to be the first of its kind to provide autism awareness training to law enforcement officers including a simulation program.
“This training is significant for the entire community as we are increasing the skill levels of our first responders in deescalating situations where they encounter a child, teen or adult with ASD,” explains Jen Arnold, M.D., M.Sc., medical director of the Center for Medical Simulation and Innovative Education at Johns Hopkins All Children’s.
“Hands-on, experiential learning like sim training greatly enhances the training process. Simulation is a safe place to make mistakes, explore how they occurred and learn how to prevent them in the future,” she adds. “We are learning so much and excited to see the program grow to meet this important educational need for law enforcement across the state and even nationwide.”
Officers attending the first official training session appreciated the attention to detail and the efforts made to offer them real-world scenarios that they can relate to every day on the job, including body-cam video of untrained officers.
One of the Tampa officers volunteered to attend the program because her own daughter has autism.
“As experts in the field, we have a responsibility to our patients with ASD to assure we are building community awareness regarding their unique strengths and weaknesses, and advocating for their needs in the community across the course of their lifespan from childhood to adulthood,” Gardner says. “I’m thrilled to be part of this program and eager to watch it grow to include other first responders including firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and educators. Dispatchers are a significant part of the equation as well.”
The program will be offered every other month and will grow along with interest. Police and Sheriff’s departments are encouraged to visit the autism training page for more information.