As Alice Smith's son Jamie approached his teen years, it dawned
on her the police in her gang-infested neighborhood might perceive
his behavior as threatening or suspicious. At 6-foot-3 and 180
pounds, Jamie looked like many other teens and young adults in the
"He looks absolutely normal and could fit an APB that's sent
out," Alice says. But Jamie, who has autism, is limited in what he
can understand about many situations. Alice knew it was imperative
that she educate the local police about her son's illness.
She spent a year educating officers about Jamie and about
autistic behaviors. "I wanted the police in the community to know
who Jamie was," Alice says.
Police Officer Jerald Nelson understands both sides of the
interaction between those with autism and the police. As the father
of a son with autism, Nelson also took his son to meet the police
in his neighborhood and tried to educate them about his son's
disability. But as a police officer, he understands that many of
the behaviors manifested by people with autism are the same
behaviors officers are trained to perceive as suspicious.
"Things like averting your gaze and refusing to make eye
contact, officers watch for that kind of behavior. Usually that's a
warning bell of 'What's this person up to?' " says, Nelson, the
Chicago Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team autism
training officer. "But if the person has autism, we know that's
While progress has been made in educating officers about working
with the members of the community with autism, there's still a long
way to go.
Nelson recommends parents take other steps to make sure children
are safe, including some type of identifying tags or rub-on
tattoos. Parents should also make sure they know what their child
is wearing each day. Clothing descriptions are the primary thing
police use to identify missing people. Nelson recommends shooting a
snapshot each morning, either on a digital camera or a camera cell
"Maybe because I'm the parent of a boy with autism, I just
personally feel that I don't know if I'd ever think there's enough
awareness out there," Nelson says.
Marita Manning knows that when children and adults with
communication difficulties wander away from home, every second
counts. So when Manning saw a story in a local newspaper about a
system that could track people in 30 minutes or less with a 100
percent success rate, she knew Naperville had to have that
Since January 2006, the city has used radio technology called "Fastrack" to keep track of local individuals
with autism, Down syndrome and Alzheimer's. The technology includes
a nonremovable, waterproof band placed on the individual's arm or
leg that emits a radio signal programmed for each person. If one of
the participants is reported missing, police use receivers to
Once a month, Manning visits the home of every person enrolled
in the program to change their bands and the batteries and to check
in with the caregivers.
"The best part is that this creates a very positive relationship
between the families, the community and the police department,"
Manning says. "We have developed a relationship before an emergency
Liz DeCarlo is the former senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.
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