Bill seeks to safeguard autistic people in police interactions

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – People with an autistic disorder often live exceptionally normal lives, but that can change when they come into contact with law enforcement. Two bills approved Tuesday seek to make those encounters more normal.

About 280,000 Floridians -- one in every 68 of us -- show up on the autism spectrum disorder.

Those with the disorder are seven times more likely to have interactions with police than average citizens.

Rep. Bill Hager wants to make sure those with the disorder have someone in the room who understands them when they are interacting with police.

“People that qualify to be in that interview include parents, or guardian, someone substantially familiar with the individual,” Hager said.

"There’s a whole body of evidence about people confessing to things they didn’t do," said Nancy Daniels, public defender of the 2nd Judicial Circuit. "Either because they didn’t understand the question correctly or because they are afraid to stand up to authority.”

Right now, when police roll up on someone who is acting out, their first thought is likely to be that they are high on drugs, not that they have an autistic disorder.

A second bill mandates police receive annual training on how to recognize someone who is acting out because of autism and not something else. Florida sheriffs support the legislation.

“The issues could be, does the person understand what we say to them?" Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Maj. Bob Ura said. "And again, if we have markers or indicators that this may be somebody that has something to do with the autism spectrum, additional training will help us.”

A third bill would order the Department of Highway safety to include an autistic diagnosis on state identification card.