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How a new simulation course helps officers train to recognize the signs of autism

As the number of people with autism grows, it’s important to recognize potential communication challenges so that police can interact more safely and effectively with these individuals

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With more than 2.1 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with autism, it’s more important than ever for police to be prepared to address the specific challenges officers may face when interacting with people with autism. VirTra is rolling out a new curriculum specifically designed to help bridge the communication gap.

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Conditions such as hearing impairment, autism or mental illness aren’t always apparent. It’s easy for police officers, trained for constant threat assessment, to mistake certain behaviors as dangerous when the person is simply unable to respond as expected.

To address the specific challenges officers face when interacting with people with autism, VirTra is rolling out a new curriculum specifically designed with the help of autism advocates to help officers bridge the communication gap and interact more effectively with individuals on the autism spectrum. With 1 in 54 children – and more than 2.1 million people total – in the country diagnosed, this has become a critical issue.

“Whether they know it or not, law enforcement have been and will be interacting with people that are on the spectrum in a fairly frequent manner” said Lon Bartel, VirTra’s director of training and curriculum, who led the effort to develop the new course over the past two years. “We want to make sure to give them skill sets so that the officers can do their best and provide the level of care and service to the folks in the autism community that they need and deserve.”

Recognizing and addressing communication challenges

More than one incident of a problematic police encounter with a person with autism has made national news. One such confrontation happened in Arizona, not far from VirTra headquarters, where an officer mistook a teenage boy engaged in stimming (self-stimulatory behavior) as a potential drug user and escalated the incident. VirTra, seeing the resulting backlash against the police from the local community, decided to take action to help better prepare police for these kinds of encounters.

If officers don’t understand how to recognize behaviors like stimming, says Bartel, it’s easy to interpret them as something else, such as drug use or aggressive movements that may pose a potential risk for the officer. Rather than a threat, however, many of these behaviors are simply signs of a communication barrier or cognitive difference.

“There are some communication boundaries or challenges that law enforcement may have to overcome in interacting with somebody who’s on the spectrum,” he said. “We want law enforcement to give them the care and the service that their particular portion of the society really deserves and needs.”

Enlisting experts, advocates

VirTra enlisted the help of the Southwest Autism Resource & Research Center to develop the training program and establish what police and other first responders need to discern within the first seconds or minutes that can make a difference.

“We need to be able to provide the initial context for that first contact,” said Bartel, “If we can get officers to understand and recognize people that are on the spectrum and then what those special requirements are, we can end up creating better outcomes in the future.”

Because autism spectrum disorder encompasses such a wide range of behaviors and symptoms, these initial interactions can be particularly challenging, but the VirTra curriculum aims to highlight some key indicators to help police officers recognize quickly that they might be dealing with a person with autism.

“It’s a situation with excesses and deficits, meaning that you may have excessive movements, speech or behaviors, but you also have deficits in communication, learning, attention and other aspects,” said Bartel. “Being able to recognize some of those excesses or deficits, maybe this is somebody that’s on the spectrum, then my communication strategies can go from there.”

The course includes examples of stimming, a common coping strategy for people with autism, which can take the form of hand flapping, rocking back and forth or other repetitive movements. In some situations, this could be interpreted as hostile or suspicious movements, and the actors in the simulation scenarios – who are themselves individuals with autism – demonstrate some of these motions to help familiarize officers with the concept.

“It’s not always going to look the same with every person, but we can actually show you some of that behavior and create a schema to help you start to understand the concept,” said Bartel. “If we can educate officers from that perspective so they understand it and see it going in, we can effect a better outcome.”

Providing context through simulation training

The new autism-focused curriculum is now part of VirTra’s Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy, or V-VICTA, and available to all VirTra customers. Bartel says the interactive judgmental training scenarios are critical to providing the contextual understanding officers need in order to better serve people with autism.

“We owe those communities to give them our best, and to do that, we have to provide that training in a scenario-based format so that we really can make it sticky and really get the best training out of it,” he said.

The course takes a two-step approach, beginning with classroom-style training to build awareness, followed by scenario-based training to help officers learn to recognize key behavioral indicators and interact successfully with people with autism.

“Just sitting in a classroom talking about it is one thing, but we really need to get them that experience and get that brain engaged from a scenario-based perspective to cause long-term learning,” said Bartel. “We actually can set context, and context is critical when it comes to learning and actually being able to perform when called upon.”

Through the digital video learning portion of the curriculum, VirTra provides multiple examples of key behaviors for comparison based on setting, age and other factors to help develop officers’ skill sets. Those lessons are then reinforced through the simulator scenarios, which are designed to help officers practice applying what they’ve learned and exploring how to react in context. Each scenario features multiple branching dialogues, with outcomes based on the trainee’s choices and the instructor’s goals.

“Autism can express itself in so many different ways, so we’re looking at not focusing specifically on technical aspects, but more concept-driven,” said Bartel. “Concepts can be universal, and there are some things that we want officers to be able to pick up on.”

In short, the goal is to help officers recognize behavior that may indicate autism faster so that they can interact more safely and effectively with these individuals.

“This is an absolutely critical component that needs to get out in the law enforcement community,” said Bartel. “We’re really excited about this particular section and being able to make an impact within law enforcement and the autism community.”

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.