Plano police offer to meet with families who have children with autism
When it comes to dealing with the police, communication is key.
Unfortunately for many people with autism spectrum disorders, communicating can be difficult, especially in new and unfamiliar situations. As a result, the Plano Police Department has launched a program aimed to help children with autism, as well as officers, learn more about one another.
Under the new program, officers from the department's Crisis Intervention Team are available to meet with families who have children with autism. The meeting can occur at the family's residence or at another location of the family's choosing, including the child's school or the police station, said Sgt. A.D. Paul.
"The whole point of the program is to try and alleviate the fear if there is a future encounter," Paul said. "We know that some encounters with law enforcement in the past have been negative and we are doing whatever we can to try and mitigate that. We think we can do that by introducing them to some of our CIT officers."
All CIT officers receive special training to help them deal with situations involving people with communication disorders, such as autism or Asperger syndrome, as well as mental disorders. Plano PD began its CIT program in 2009 and currently 36 percent of the department's officers are certified, Paul said.
"Officers are taught to recognize what these disorders might look like so they can go into a CIT mode and get out of the traditional law enforcement mode," Paul said. "This lets them get some cooperation with that person and de-escalate whatever is going on."
While it is too early to determine whether the program will be a success, at least one local expert likes what she has heard so far.
Suzanne Bonifert, the head of speech pathology at the UT Dallas Callier Center for Communication Disorders, said proactive programs should benefit both officers and people with autism.
"I think this is a wonderful, wonderful idea," Bonifert said, adding that the Centers for Disease Control reports that 1 in 88 children is born with an autism spectrum disorder. "Any opportunity where people can learn about autism, and learn about strategies for working and interacting with people with autism, is very positive."
A portion of some therapy sessions at the Callier Center involve bringing law enforcement officers in so they can talk to patients with autism about what they should do when they see a policeman. Bonifert said she has seen this therapy technique increase the comfort level of people with autism when they encounter officers, and believes the Plano PD program may have the same result.
The reason for potentially negative encounters people with autism have with police is not necessarily due to fear, Bonifert said, but rather due to people being put in situations they are not prepared for.
"It is difficult for children and adults with autism to encounter new things or changes they are not used to," she said. "If something is unfamiliar, it can create a sense of fear; but it is not like they are fearful in general -- although some may be. They become fearful and very anxious when they are in a situation they have not encountered and when they don't know how to respond."
Bonifert praised the police department's willingness to meet with families at a location of the family's choosing, saying it is important to remain flexible when dealing with people with autism.
"Some children might feel threatened in their home environment, but if you take them to the police station where they can see how it works and see the different people that work there, that might be a more comfortable learning environment," she said. "It sounds like the police are open to different ways to address it, which is wonderful since not all patients with autism are the same."
Doctors are unsure of the factors that lead to a person being autistic, Bonifert said, adding that while there is no cure, treatments such as therapy can make a big difference in people's lives.
For information on the Callier Center, visit utdallas.edu/calliercenter/clinic/autism. For information on the Plano PD program, call 972-941-2431.
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