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How police departments are participating in Autism Awareness Month

Agencies across the country spread awareness and trained officers for encounters with someone who is autistic


By Jessica De Leon
The Bradenton Herald

BRADENTON, Fla. —Law enforcement agencies locally and across the country have started programs to spread awareness about autism and train officers for encounters with someone who is autistic.

April is recognized worldwide as Autism Awareness Month. Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, includes a group of developmental disabilities that cause persistent challenges in communication, interpersonal relationships and social interaction. Symptoms of the disorder can vary in severity.

Those with autism have often difficulty speaking, interpreting or expressing emotion. People with autism also can be extremely sensitive to sensory stimulation including sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.

In the United States, one in 44 children have been diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disorder is prevalent across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups but is four times more common in boys compared to girls.

This disorder is typically detectable by the age of 2 or 3, but can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Research has shown that with early intervention, autistic children are more successful later in life.

Deputies with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and officers with the Bradenton Police Department participate in annual autism awareness training. The sheriff’s office training program has been in effect since 2012, and the police department since 2017.

[MORE: 5 tips to guide officers during interactions with autistic persons]

Officers and dispatchers also undergo autism awareness training as part of their initial Field Training Officer program. The department offers periodic follow-up training and is scheduled to do some this spring, Chief Scott Tyler said.

Throughout the month of April, Bradenton police also have Autism Awareness magnets on their patrol cars to help build awareness in the community, promote acceptance and inclusivity.

Autism decals and database

Currently, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office is developing a database to identify residents with autism or other limitations and conditions, sheriff’s office spokesman Randy Warren said.

It will include “information provided voluntarily, and readily available to deputies when they encounter people with special needs,” Warren said. “This will be very helpful in identifying people with autism, returning people to their homes, and making contact with their loved ones if needed.”

The sheriff’s office intends for this database to coincide with a decal program, similar to those launched elsewhere in the state. The Bradenton Police Department is also currently looking at options for a reporting system, Bradenton Police Capt. Brian Thiers said.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office recently created an Autism Decal program where residents can request decals to stick to the front doors of their homes or in the rear window of their vehicles to make officers aware an autistic person is present. This enables officers to be aware that person may have difficulty with speech, responding to or complying with commands, may hide, wander off or may been unaware of danger.

“Our deputies are trained on the unique characteristics, behaviors and needs of people with autism,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said when announcing their program. “When a deputy sees one of these stickers, or responds to a home that has registered for this program, he or she will know they might interact with someone who has difficulty communicating or interacting with others. This enables us to better communicate with those who have special needs.”

Residents who do no wish to display the decals can still register with the program to enable the sheriff’s office dispatch to flag the address.

Hialeah, Miami-Dade’s second largest city, also has an Autism Awareness Decal Program providing decals to residents for their homes or vehicles.

Similarly, Hialeah residents not wishing to display the decals can still register with the department’s program so their address can be flagged in the 911 dispatch system.

(c)2022 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.)