MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We turn now from making laws to enforcing them. It turns out that people with development disabilities, like autism or Down syndrome, are much more likely to come into contact with law enforcement than the rest of us are. And those interactions can sometimes have tragic results. Earlier this year, a young man with Down syndrome died in Frederick, Md. when Sheriff's deputies tried to remove him from a movie theater. There's been an outcry surrounding that case, including calls for better training for first responders, so they can safely interact with people who have developmental disabilities. Jacob Fenston caught up with a man who has spent the past eight years doing just that sort of training.
MR. SCOTT CAMPBELL
I'm Scott Campbell. We have a 15-year-old son with autism.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
Scott Campbell's son Ian is sitting in his room after school. He's watching videos and twirling string. In his 15 years, Ian has never spoken a word.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
Scott Campbell is president of the Autism Society of Northern Virginia. And since 2005 he's held more than 200 training sessions for law enforcement, firefighters, and first responders, as well as parents. He says people with autism and other developmental disabilities are more likely to come into contact with police because of behaviors particular to their disorders.
Unfortunately, some of the physical manifestations of autism, such as waving hands, flicking fingers, some of the body things that some of the kids do -- not all -- also are similar to folks who are on meth or PCP. So one of the assumptions is, oh, that kid's on drugs and we have to be fearful of them, or something like that. So the chance of them being involved with law enforcement is seven times greater than the general population. In essence, it's not if you're going to have a contact with law enforcement, you will. It's going to happen because they don't behave like everybody else does. They do things on occasion that stand out and draw attention to themselves.
I mean, by the time our son was five we'd had three run-ins with law enforcement ourselves. All which turned out well, but it's just the chance of something not going right or being misunderstood is very high.
What do you tell law enforcement officials about interacting with people with autism? What are some of the specifics that, you know, they need to be aware of to make these interactions safe?
Well, number one, get as much information as you can about the individual, how do they communicate? Because about half of the children with autism, including our son, are non-verbal, they don't talk at all. Our son's never said a word in his life, but he uses an iPad to communicate. So find out how they communicate so you can fix the communication piece. For many children, not all, but you know, for many of them, sensory overload is an enormous thing. For our son it's noises. He regularly walks around with his fingers in his ears or he wears a headphone these days just to cut down on the noise.
So try to get them to some place quiet, get them away from the crowds.
And some of the ways that a law enforcement official might typically handle someone could actually exacerbate a situation, you know, in terms of trying to restrain them or that sort of thing.
One of the issues with individuals with autism and folks with other developmental disabilities, is a problem with positional asphyxia, where if they're held on their stomach -- and typically, say if you're tasered, the current training for law enforcement is you're handcuffed and your hands are held behind you and you're on your belly. If they're held in that position for too long some individuals have underdeveloped trunk muscles and simply can't breathe. That was the case for the young man with Down syndrome up in Maryland.
Police usually will hold them in the position until the individual stops resisting. The problem with folks with autism is they simply may not be able to understand because of, again, due to sensory issues, what's going on. And they may continue to resist simply because they don't understand what's going on around them. And by the time they stop resisting, unfortunately, it may be because they've either passed out or in some cases have died being held in a position. And just rolling them on their side is all that's necessary to allow them to breathe normally.
So when I talk to parents, I'm like, okay, if your child is tasered or if they're detained and if they're held in a position on their belly, simply, nicely ask the officer to please roll them on their side so they can breathe normally if that's a problem.
When you've done trainings with law enforcement, have you had particular questions come up that, you know, maybe an officer has dealt with? Are there concerns that arise sort of frequently?
Yeah, questions always come up. Lately, I've been starting my presentations with asking for a show of hands of how many people have dealt with somebody with autism before. And when I started this in 2005, it was a couple of hands out of 30 or 40 officers. Nowadays, it's usually at least 25 percent of the audience. So there's more and more interactions. And the problem is, with autism, if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. They're each very unique. That's the hard part when I do classes for law enforcement, is there isn't really a good cookbook answer of, okay, it's autism, what do you do, you know.
It's very individual, which is why I always stress, get information from caregivers, from parents, bystanders. Find out, you know, what you think might work.
That was Scott Campbell, president of that Autism Society of Northern Virginia speaking with WAMU's Jacob Fenston.
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