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Autism awareness: Why it matters for law enforcement

In this Q&A, Police1 asks an expert what police need to know about people with autism and why, as well as what they can expect to learn from the new VirTra training course

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VirTra tapped Dr. Daniel Openden, president and CEO of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, to help develop and present its new autism awareness course material. SARRC also helped VirTra develop the scenarios for the simulator portion of the course.


Sponsored by VirTra

By Rachel Zoch, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

In line with its mission of preparing law enforcement officers for real-life incidents, VirTra is working to address the difficulties faced by police when interacting with people in special populations, such as people with autism. A new course in VirTra’s Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy, or V-VICTA, helps officers learn to recognize key behaviors that may indicate a person has autism and how to overcome communication challenges with those individuals.

VirTra teamed up with the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center to help develop this new autism awareness curriculum. Police1 spoke with Dr. Daniel Openden, president and CEO of SARRC, who has worked in research and clinical services with children, teens and adults with autism for two decades. We wanted to learn more about how the organization collaborated with VirTra and what police can expect to learn from the course. Here are highlights from that conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

Dr. Daniel Openden, president and CEO of SARRC,

Dr. Daniel Openden, president and CEO of SARRC, collaborated with VirTra to develop its new autism awareness course for law enforcement.


How did you get connected with VirTra for this project?

Three years ago, there was a major news story that was all over the country about a very negative interaction between an Arizona police officer and a 14-year-old with autism. There are several of these cases documented from around the country, but I think it really hit home when it happened right here in Arizona.

The officer had been trained in drug enforcement, and the young man was engaging in some repetitive hand behaviors (called “stimming” for self-stimulatory behavior). The officer kept approaching the kid, and unfortunately, the kid tried to run away, he was tackled and got hurt, and it was a big legal mess. So the autism community largely came out attacking the police.

We had a very different approach. Our approach was to reach out to the police department to understand what are the things we need to teach people on the spectrum to be more responsive to first responders. At the same time, what efforts could we work together on to help police be better prepared for interacting with people with autism? We tried to build relationships, and through that, VirTra heard about us and what we were doing.

I went to meet with Lon Bartel (director of training and curriculum) at VirTra, and he told me what they wanted to achieve, showed me some of their work and put me in one of the simulators. I was just instantly blown away by what they were doing, the quality of what they were doing and the potential of what we could do together.

How have you advised and collaborated to help VirTra develop the new curriculum?

They are clearly the experts when it comes to training of police officers, and we are clearly the experts when it comes to autism. It’s a really cool partnership combining the best expertise around how to do training for police officers with autism expertise so that we’re getting it clinically accurate yet as relevant as possible for police officers.

One thing I credit VirTra with is they’ve done their homework and really learned a lot about autism. They would originally develop the script, and then we would go through it and say, “We need to improve the accuracy clinically,” or “We want to make sure this is described appropriately.” We’d send it back to them, and they’d say, “OK, well that’s great, but that’s never going to resonate with a police officer, so how about we say it like this?” It was a very positive back-and-forth collaboration.

Even before that we went through what the various scenarios might be, and our team came up with what would be the most common or likely scenarios where a police officer might interact with a person with autism, particularly trying to identify situations that would be common for people with autism and very confusing for police officers.

One thing that I was really concerned about getting into a project like this is that it would be ridiculous to think that we could create a training program in which police officers are going to be able to easily identify and pretty much do a drive-by diagnosis of someone with autism. That’s just not realistic.

I was very candid with Lon about that, and he said, “If at the end of this project we accomplish that the same police officer in that same situation thinks to himself, ‘He might be on drugs, or he might have autism,’ then we’ve achieved our goal.” I liked that he wasn’t trying to overpromise and under-deliver. I think it’s a very realistic goal. If we could just get people to stop and think, “Maybe this is autism,” they might interact and behave a little bit differently.

How were people with autism involved in the development of the new training?

One of the things that we are very careful of in this project is to actually involve people with autism. Within the video simulators, the police officers have to interact with somebody with autism, and we said it’s going to be really important for the success and acceptance of this project for people with autism to be represented by people with autism.

VirTra took the lead in finding and approaching an acting organization that helped us identify actors who happen to have autism, and we recruited them to go through the audition process with VirTra. In the end, all the people representing people with autism are actors who happen to have autism. I’m super proud of the fact that we found a solution that was ethical and that is representative of the autism population and actually features people with autism in our training module.

What are some of the behaviors the VirTra training will help officers recognize?

A lot of times, people with autism are not great about making eye contact, and it’s a skill that many really struggle with. So if you have a police officer who’s expecting a certain level of authority and compliance as they interact with people, and you have somebody with autism that won’t look them in the eye, won’t respond to them, maybe they just walk away from them like in the Arizona case – well, you can’t do that, right?

Those sorts of behaviors are at the heart of what autism is – it’s a social disorder – so I think helping police officers understand the social differences with people with autism that they might interact with is what’s really critical. He might not make good eye contact, he might not be compliant, the person with autism might walk away from you. Maybe they don’t say anything at all.

We’ve got a large portion of the autism population that’s verbal, although to varying degrees. We’ve got another portion that’s nonverbal but uses a device, like an augmentative communication device, to communicate. So imagine if a police officer says something to somebody with autism, and in order to respond, the person with autism goes to reach into their pocket to pull out their iPhone to communicate a response. That’s potential threat for a police officer.

One of the biggest challenges for us in this project is that when we say “autism spectrum disorder,” we really mean it. It’s a spectrum, meaning we’re going to have all sorts of different types of symptoms and severities from very mild to very severe and everything in between. So if you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism – and the differences between and among them are huge. It’s an incredibly tall challenge to be a police officer when we’re trying to work with you on identifying signs and behaviors of autism and they’re all so different from each other. That’s one of the challenges of the project.

There’s a segment of the autism population on the spectrum that we used to refer to as people with Asperger’s disorder. Asperger’s as a diagnostic term has really been removed from the diagnostic manual, but people with Asperger’s in many ways are really at high risk for having problems with police officers because they can communicate properly, but they tend to have very significant social challenges and behavioral challenges. I don’t want them to get overlooked. It’s almost like, if you had more severe autism, somebody might pick up on that a little bit easier than somebody that’s completely verbal.

A police officer’s going to come across somebody like that and instantly think there’s nothing wrong with this person, or maybe they’re just being noncompliant or on drugs or who knows. In reality, what they’re picking up on are these social challenges that in many ways are very difficult and challenging for people on the spectrum but for a police officer can appear threatening or noncompliant, and those are the things we really want police officers to work through so that nobody gets hurt.

In the videos we’ll have the person with autism engaging in some of those behaviors. A lot of them in that high-functioning population are very verbal – it’s just the social cues, it’s the lack of eye contact, it’s not answering questions directly. It might be walking away from the person. It’s all of those types of behaviors that we want officers to be ready to see and then in their head kind of go, “Maybe this person is on the spectrum. Let me keep asking questions and see if I can figure out what’s going on here.”

Why is this training important?

I’ll give you a few reasons. One is, we now know that 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with autism. We know that the rate is probably even higher, because those statistics are based on 8-year-olds. As the numbers of people from children through adults are actively entering and involved in our community, police officers are going to come into contact with more and more people with autism. And we want to make sure that people with autism are safe. We also want to make sure that police officers are safe and prepared.

Second, a lot of SARRC’s programs focus on trying to integrate people with autism in the community, which means that the chances of interactions with first responders and police officers is going to go way up, which means we need everybody to be prepared for that.

A third reason is that what happened in Arizona and what’s happening with stories around the country tells us that police officers are not prepared for interacting with people with autism. At the same time, it tells us as service providers that we need to better prepare people with autism to interact with first responders.

A fourth reason – and I think this is really key and why I love what we’re doing with VirTra on this project – the response to the challenges with interactions with first responders has been well-intentioned but falls far short of being able to really change and improve the behaviors of police officers. They’ve got to spend three hours sitting in a conference room or an auditorium learning about what is autism and what you can do, and basically, they’re just being kind of talked at and talked to. That’s good for acquiring knowledge, but I don’t think that’s necessarily good for changing and improving behavior.

How does simulation provide that critical difference?

What VirTra is so good at is preparing police officers for low-probability, high-risk situations and changing their behavior. And this is what we do with people with autism – we try to change behavior. By being in a simulator, we’re able to coach police officers, we’re able to correct where they engage in the wrong types of behaviors. We’re able to reinforce when they engage in the right types of behaviors.

You remember the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? With a push of the button, the trainer can change completely what’s happening in the simulator. They can take a person with autism who is being highly compliant or almost nonverbal and saying nothing, and in an instant make that person turn away or run from the police officer, and the officer has to then respond to that and get coaching for doing that. That’s a very different approach to improving behavior.

Usually training stops at talking to people, not practice with feedback, and so I go back to what I said earlier: Knowledge-based didactic training for police officers is good if we want to increase knowledge, but if we really want to change behavior and interactions out on the street, then we have to do behavior-based training. That’s what they built into the technology, and that’s what’s really going to make a difference.

I’m really excited about getting this launched because I think it can make a huge difference. Let’s get this launched, let’s start getting people trained. And then let’s see how we make this not just available but required for more police officers or first responders. I feel like we have the potential to really make an impact rather than just check a box and say we provided training.

Rachel Zoch is a branded content project lead for Lexipol, where she has written about public safety products and issues important to police, fire, EMS and corrections since 2015. A University of Texas journalism graduate, she previously worked the copy desk of a local daily newspaper and served as managing editor of a trade magazine for the multifamily housing industry.