Are officers trained to encounter people with autism?

Training programs in place in Duval, St. Johns, Clay counties

By Joy Purdy - 5:30, 6:30 & 11 p.m. anchor

JACKSONVILLE - A concerned father of an 18-year-old with autism recently asked News4Jax if area police officers are trained to interact with people like his son.

His question sparked News4Jax to dig into what training is available in Northeast Florida for law enforcement and other first responders in how to deal with children and adults with autism.

"I don't want them to think my son is being disrespectful or disobedient," Timm Crocker said. "I just want them to be patient."

Crocker said his son, 18-year-old Tre'von, was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old.

Tre'von is about to graduate from Alden Road Exceptional Student Center and will transition into the center's post-graduate life skills schooling.

Crocker said he knows his son will never have what most consider a regular job, but he hopes Tre'von will someday become a bigger part of society.

Tre'von is one of more than 1,400 students with autism enrolled in special needs classes and schools in the area. That's nearly a 43 percent increase from four years ago.

Crocker said he's never had a bad encounter with law enforcement, so he wasn't out to bash them when he raised his question to News4Jax via Facebook. He just wanted to know, on behalf of several families dealing with autism, if officers in the area are trained for such encounters.

Area officers undergo autism training

News4Jax found varying forms of autism training in each of Northeast Florida's largest counties.

The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office has incorporated an autism curriculum into its annual in-service training for all officers.

The department has also made it an integral part of its Crisis Intervention Training, focused on multiple aspects of mental health.

The week-long, 40-hour CIT training is used by law enforcement departments nationwide and includes role-playing scenarios, videos, visits from area autism experts and families dealing with the disorder, as well as field trips to related facilities.

Sheriff David Shoar  said his department has taken extra steps, making sure every employee, sworn or civilian, has the week-long block of training.

The SJCSO has flagged all 21 group homes countywide, so when deputies respond to a disturbance call, they know if there's a center in the area.

Also, non-lethal weapons that deploy large foam bullets were given to all St. Johns County deputies as an extra resource.

The Clay County Sheriff's Office was the first local law enforcement department to incorporate autism experts from Wolfson Children's Hospital.

It now has it's own specialized mental health training unit, providing the knowledge in-house for all officers on a variety of issues, including autism.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office required all of its police supervisors to take autism training last April.

Now, every Jacksonville officer has, or is in the process of receiving, the same training, which is also now part of every Jacksonville police recruit's required CIT training.

Police encounters that have made headlines recently prove just how helpful and timely autism training has been for each of the three local sheriff's offices.

Wolfson Children's Rehab Center offers training

Speech language pathologist Lauren Papke, with Wolfson Children's Rehabilitation Center, said she discovered the area's first responders didn't  have adequate autism training after she researched resources for a family that was concerned about their young child with autism who often ran away.

"We sought to fill that gap," Papke explained.

The program she and others created in 2013 is called SAFE Program Training: Safety Awareness for First Response to Elopement.

Elopement refers to a person with autism who is at high risk of running or wandering away from a safe environment into danger.

"We review symptoms of autism, how to identify children or adults with autism, the signs or symptoms of autism," Papke said. "And we provide them with the federal guidelines for searching for persons with special needs and communicating with them."

One of the most important lessons for law enforcement to learn about interacting and communicating with someone who has autism relates to water.

"Drowning is the leading cause of death for children under 14," Papke said. "We're really trying to educate first responders that these children are really drawn to water, and they need to search those areas first and foremost for these kids."

Papke and her team hope to take the SAFE Program training to all law enforcement departments in the area, because they are usually the first to respond to disturbance calls involving someone with autism.

The team then plans to reach out to all local fire-rescue departments.

Learn more at 8th annual Autism Symposium

Area residents don't have to be in law enforcement to receive detailed autism training from Wolfson Children's Hospital.

The SAFE Program offers education for families and community members, as well, addressing concerns like safety modifications for a home and providing information on tracking systems.

Also, the eighth annual Autism Symposium, coming up in March, is open to the public.

At the symposium, attendees can expect to hear from several nationally renowned autism experts who will address a wide range of topics from how best to handle violent behavior to how to better protect a loved one in society.

The cost for the full-day symposium on Wednesday, March 9 is $65, which includes a continental breakfast and lunch. Preregistration is required. To register, go to wolfsonchildrens.org.

Wolfson Children's Hospital also offers the following advice for parents of children with autism:

  • Secure home with appropriate locks as well as door and window alarms
  • Post visual stop signs near exits
  • Have children wear autism alert tags with identifying information
  • At nighttime, dress your child in neon pajamas (to be easier to spot)
  • Document all instances of wandering/elopement
  • Complete the Autism Elopement Form, available from the National Autism Association
  • Put your child in swimming lessons specifically designed for children with special needs

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