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Understanding each other: Families, police learn how to best protect youth, adults with autism, developmental disabilities

Prescott Police Department officer Andrew Lovan speaks with Emily Nisse (left) and her parents, Shannon and Joseph, during a Be Safe event hosted at Yavapai College Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. The workshop demonstrated how to address the safety needs of youth and adults with autism and developmental disabilities. (Max Efrein/Courier)

Prescott Police Department officer Andrew Lovan speaks with Emily Nisse (left) and her parents, Shannon and Joseph, during a Be Safe event hosted at Yavapai College Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. The workshop demonstrated how to address the safety needs of youth and adults with autism and developmental disabilities. (Max Efrein/Courier)

In 2017, a Phoenix-area incident drove home the importance of addressing how law enforcement interacts with people who have developmental disabilities.

A Buckeye Police Department officer mistakenly thought a 14-year-old boy was on drugs in a public park and ended up wrestling the boy to the ground, injuring him, when he tried walking away from the officer.

The officer later learned the boy is autistic and was instead “stimming” with a piece of string — an exercise commonly taught to people with autism to help them cope with stressful situations.

Video of the incident had been captured by the officer’s body camera and it ended up being published by Arizona media.

Many families were outraged with how the officer handled the situation, but Cynthia Macluskie, founder of the Autism Society of Greater Phoenix, saw it as a great learning opportunity for both families and law enforcement.

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A Prescott Police Department officer guides people through an interactive exercise called Officer Simon Says during a Be Safe event hosted at Yavapai College Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. (Max Efrein/Courier)

“Had we educated [the boy] to tell the officer ‘I have autism,’ it would have been a completely different interaction,” Macluskie said.

Similarly, had the officer known how to identify and speak with someone who has autism, then perhaps the situation wouldn’t have escalated to physical violence.

Five years ago, Macluskie began using a program called Be Safe to educate Arizona families on how to address the safety needs of youth and adults with autism and developmental disabilities. The program specifically covers essential safety skills for interacting with police in different encounters.

To help bridge that gap locally, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) decided to invite Macluskie to host a Be Safe workshop in Prescott on Wednesday, Oct. 2.

“We’ve just really been working on mental health first aid and training the officers in Yavapai County on dealing with individuals who might have a mental illness or are experiencing a mental crisis, so we want to make sure we’re reaching the mentally delayed and autistic folks as well,” said Nancy Gardner, project manager with YCSO’s Yavapai Justice and Mental Health Coalition.

Something Macluskie stressed during the workshop is that families and law enforcement need to trust each other and work together in order for this sort of education to truly work.

“Half the parents do not call 911 when they’re child first goes missing,” Macluskie told attendees of the workshop. “What we hear is they don’t want to inconvenience anybody and think they’re going to find them on their own. So one of the messages we want to leave you with is if your child goes missing, dial 911.”

Last year, legislation was passed in Arizona to assist with such searches. The bill made it so the state’s Silver Alert System, which was formerly only activated when someone suffering from cognitive decline or is at least 65 years old goes missing, now includes individuals with autism or other developmental disabilities.

This is significant because Silver Alerts use a wide array of media outlets, roadway signs, text alerts and reverse 911 to broadcast information about missing persons.

Parents at the workshop were glad to learn about this expanded resource, and said they appreciated the effort from both Arizona law enforcement and nonprofits like the Arizona Autism Coalition to enhance understanding on both sides of the aisle.

“I think this is really great,” said Ragan Fiske, who has a 9-year-old boy with autism. “It gives us a great way to work with our children on what to do with law enforcement. Some of this stuff seems common sense, but our kids don’t necessarily think about things the same way. Their brains are so different that they don’t respond to situations in a typical manner. So it’s really helpful for them to know what the expectation is before they enter into it.”

For Owen Culver, who has two children with autism, his immediate concern is how his high-functioning 12-year-old boy — who is prone to fits of anger — might react to police when he’s older and doesn’t have an adult with him during stressful situations.

“My hope is that through more positive interaction with police, if he does ever have to interact with them for a negative reason, he’ll know that the cops aren’t out to get him or out to make his life worse,” Culver said. “I hope he can just tell himself, ‘They’re just doing their job and I just need to chill out and let them do their job.’”

Officers and other law-enforcement personnel in Yavapai County will be doing their part to enhance their awareness on this subject by going through specific training on how to interact more effectively with individuals diagnosed with autism, Down syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in mid-October.

The course will be four hours long and cover topics such as de-escalation strategies, medical considerations and sensory scene management.

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