Awareness key when autistic behaviors can be misread by police

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 neighborhood.

“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 normal.”

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 phone.

“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.

The fast track to locating lost kids

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 system.

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 search.

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 occurs.”

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