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First Responders Receive Developmental Disability Training

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Scott Campbell, with his son Ian, who is autistic.
Scott Campbell, with his son Ian, who is autistic.

People with developmental disabilities, like autism or Down syndrome, are much more likely to come into contact with law enforcement than the general population — up to seven times more likely. Those interactions can sometimes have tragic results, as was the case recently when a young man in Frederick, Md. died while 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 police and first responders, to help them safely interact with people with developmental disabilities.

Scott Campbell has been doing just that sort of training for the past eight years. He's given over 200 training presentations to law enforcement, firefighters, and parents, on how to ensure the safety of people with developmental disabilities, particularly autism. Campbell has a 15-year-old son with autism, and he's president of the Autism Society of northern Virginia.

He says people with autism, and other developmental disabilities, are more likely to come in 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."

Campbell teaches law enforcement officials how to recognize autism, and tells them to try to get as much information as possible about an individual they're dealing with.

"How do they communicate? Because about half of the children with autism, including our son, are non-verbal, they don't talk at all," explains Campbell. "Our son has 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."

It can also be tricky to figure out exactly what will calm or agitate a particular person.

"For many children, not all, sensory overload is an enormous thing," says Campbell "For our son, it's noises. He regularly walks around with his fingers in his ears, or he wears headphones these days, just to cut down on the noise."

Campbell says training for law enforcement is more and more important, with the increasing numbers of autism diagnoses in the United States. He always starts classes by asking how many officers have had interactions with autistic kids. Back in 2005, when he first started holding classes, only a couple of hands would go up, in a room of 30 or 40 officers. Now, he says, at least a quarter of the people in class raise their hands.


[Music: "Theme of Law & Order" by Mike Post from Law & Order]

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