Police officers trained to recognize autism

Police officers in Brevard County will start a new kind of training this month to learn how to recognize the signs of Autism.   It’s a need that was highlighted last month when a police officer shot a worker caring for an autistic man.

The program is being developed in part by The Scott Center for Autism Treatment at Florida Institute of Technology.

When Suzanne Dickey brought her son, Benjamin, to the Scott Center he could say just one word.

"He could say 'go' and he would run and he was just constantly on the go,” said the mother of three from Merritt Island.

Benjamin, who is almost 3, has learned a lot in the past year.

“He works on communicating.  He works on responding to his name,” Dickey said.

But if Benjamin somehow wound up on his own and encountered a police officer who was trying to help, “He would probably run away from them.  Which could be seen as a defiant or disrespectful behavior.  And it's not.  It's just the way he is."

That’s one of the behaviors that Michael Kelley and the staff at the Scott Center hope to help police officers understand when they hold their first Autism training program for law enforcement at Eastern Florida State College’s Law Enforcement Academy on August 24.

"What can they expect?  What might be different when they approach someone who has autism compared to other people in the community?” Kelley said.

The staff has been working on the program for police for months, but cell phone video captured in July reinforced the need for that training.

The video captured an exchange between police officers, a man with autism, and his caretaker.

An officer fired at the caretaker, later saying he though a toy truck in the autistic man’s hand was a weapon.
"In that situation from my perspective it was a completely unambiguous situation,” Kelley said.  "To someone who's never seen what someone with autism might look like, that was a very ambiguous situation."

The entire Rockledge Police Department learned how to approach people with Autism more than a year ago.  They will send new officers to the training on August 24.

"The biggest thing we walked away with is: this person may not be processing that information and we need to back up and regroup and do our best to get our information across to them,” said Lt. Donna Seyferth.

Seyferth said the department thinks the training is important as so many kids who were diagnosed with autism 20 years ago become adults like the young man from Miami.

"That's an example of probably where more training is going to come about and we're just glad to be already in that process,” Seyferth said.

Dickey hopes that the process of better understanding children and adults with autism will start with law enforcement and spread to the rest of the community.

"It's not just police knowing how to handle children with Autism.  It's people knowing how to handle children with Autism,” she said.

Eleven officers are currently signed up for the training session that begins on August 24.  They are from Rockledge Police Department, Palm Bay Police Department, Brevard County Sheriff’s Office and Melbourne International Airport.