Law-enforcement employees and emergency responders learn about autism

The six-hour training event was offered by Providing Relief for Autistic Youth Inc.

April 19, 2012|By HEATHER KEELS |
  • Hagerstown Police School Resource Officers Marty Pitsnogle, left, Brett McKoy and Heather Albowicz listen to autism expert Dennis Debbaudt speak at an autism awareness seminar for law enforcement at Hagerstown Community College Thursday.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

Trainer Dennis Debbaudt walked up to a student in the front row and leaned in, speaking a few inches from his face during a training session Thursday for about 50 law-enforcement officials and emergency responders at Hagerstown Community College.

He said that for someone with autism that might be a natural way to greet a new neighbor for the first time, while the startled neighbor might feel stalked, threatened or sexually harassed and call 911.

The scenario is one of many examples of how people with autism think and behave differently than others that police and other emergency responders need to understand, organizers of the session said.

The six-hour training event, offered by the Williamsport-based organization Providing Relief for Autistic Youth Inc., or PRAY, was attended by police and other emergency responders from throughout Maryland, as well as Berkeley County W.Va.

It was followed by a two-hour evening session for parents, educators and human services professionals.


Autism, a spectrum of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, affects about 1 in 88 children, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were 181 students with autism in Washington County last school year, Maryland Department of Education statistics show.

“There is a large population in Washington County that has autism, so as a police officer, it’s important to recognize the autism, and this class is providing us the opportunity to learn how to deal with it,” said Deputy 1st Class Alan Matheny, one of three Washington County Sheriff’s Office deputies who attended and will use the information to train other officers.

The course included a discussion about how lights, sirens, radios and canine partners might trigger sensory overload for someone with autism, causing a “fight or flight response.”

“When you come across someone who has autism ... instead of yelling, now I’m going to have to do a more quiet approach, and maybe turn lights off and things like that to keep them focused on what we’re trying to get them to do,” Matheny said.

Police should also be aware of common autistic behaviors, such as avoiding eye contact and repeating things that are said, which might be misinterpreted as signs of guilt or disrespect, said Trish Ieraci, a spokeswoman for Providing Relief for Autistic Youth.

There are also physical considerations when dealing with people with autism, Ieraci said.

“With an autistic individual, upper body strength is not developed as somebody who’s neurotypical, so if you have them with their hands cuffed behind them and their face down on the ground, they don’t necessarily have the ability to breathe correctly, and that could end in death,” she said.

Autism awareness, once largely absent from police training nationwide, is becoming increasingly common as agencies seek to avoid lawsuits, said Darla Rothman, curriculum development coordinator for Maryland’s Police and Correctional Training Commissions.

Maryland, which has offered optional autism training for police and correctional officers since 1999, approved a new set of mandated objectives this week that will make autism training a required part of police training, Rothman said.

PRAY used a roughly $3,600 grant from the Washington County Gaming Commission to put on the program, organization President Matt Dittman said.

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