County Police Officers Attend Autism Awareness Class

Dozens of county police officers marked Autism Awareness Month by attending the first-ever Critical Autism Training for Public Safety Personnel class at the Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy in Chantilly.

The class was designed to cover the basics of autism, a term for the range of disabilities medically classified as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD). According to Commonwealth Autism Service (CAS), those who are on the autistic spectrum are seven times more likely to encounter law enforcement than others in the community.

Thus, it’s important that police personnel understand that these individuals may not react as expected during emergencies. These encounters can be riskier than others simply because officers may not recognize the signs and symptoms of persons who display varying levels of communication and sensory abilities.

Growing disorder

Current statistics indicate that 1 person of every 110 exhibit some characteristics of autism spectrum disorder and it is much more prevalent in boys (1:70). Experts indicate that the numbers are growing fast. There are over 12,000 autistic students in Virginia schools, with no estimate for the number of adults.

There are many controversies and theories as to the reasons for this dramatic growth; however officers simply need to know that it is present in the community and learn to recognize the basic characteristics of the disorders and suggested ways of responding in public safety encounters.

Comprehensive instruction

Instructors included a duo of experienced officers from Richmond and Roanoke, along with a woman from Commonwealth Autism Service, located in Bedford.  Officers and deputies from across the region and the Vice President of the Autism Society of Northern Virginia Scott Campbell presented their insights, knowledge and experiences with each other.

After covering the basics of autism, instructors discussed specific social interaction and communication symptoms that officers may (or may not) encounter with autistic individuals. Several told their personal stories; one 11-year-old child sleeps just 30 minutes at a time and is up every four hours. Another child is described as an “escape artist” as he frequently runs away from home, prompting frequent 9-1-1 calls for help.

Dealing with autism

Officers reviewed specific behaviors they should expect to encounter with autistic children, including non-compliance with orders and aggression or agitation to sensory stimuli. They also heard from parents with autistic children and learned about ways to engage residents on this critical issue.

Overall, officers learned that autism affects everyone. It is neither a mental illness nor a psychosis. There is no one-size-fits all way to describe an individual with autism; but instructors encouraged all officers to learn more about the autism spectrum and emphasized that the more you know about autism, the better the more harmonious encounters will be with less likelihood for injuries.

Instructors concluded, “Law enforcement is a ‘catch-all’ and is often seen as a last resort by parents. An officer’s oath is to serve and to protect; especially, perhaps, those that are least able to protect themselves.”