On Thursday, April 26th, Autism Speaks hosted a briefing in coordination with the Congressional Coalition on Autism Research and Education to highlight challenges and opportunities to improve law enforcement interactions with the autism community. Youth and young adults with autism frequently experience interactions with law enforcement agencies and first responders for a number of reasons. For example, first responders are increasingly called upon to respond to and assist in cases of wandering and elopement. Therefore, the ability for these two communities to interact in a positive way is paramount. The 2018 World Autism Month Congressional Briefing highlighted the need for increased awareness of individuals with autism as well as the best practices and emerging innovations that are being developed to help prepare law enforcement, first responders, parents, and individuals with autism have positive interactions.
Paul Turcotte, began the conversation by sharing specific survey and census data reflecting the numerous encounters between individuals with autism and law enforcement. He also described how the ASERT program in Philadelphia works throughout the state to execute justice initiatives to improve such interactions.
Congressman Lou Correa (CA-46) briefly joined the panel to share his support for initiatives that benefit individuals with autism. The Congressman described the prevalence of autism as a "huge challenge that is unfolding for our society". Congressman Correa also recognized the opportunity advocates and policymakers have to address the needs of individuals with autism. He encouraged advocates to continue to build serious support for autism research, treatment, and services. Pointing to the autism insurance reform he championed as a state legislator, Rep. Correa encouraged attendees to focus on national solutions because "[autism] effects all of us, and it especially effects our loved ones." We are grateful for Congressman Correa's support as well as the leadership of the Congressional Autism Caucus co-chairs, Congressman Chris Smith and Congressman Mike Doyle.
Vijay Ravindran, CEO of Floreo, presented on their virtual reality learning technology that provides a supplementary method of teaching social and communication skills for individuals with autism. Through supervised monitoring and tracking of the user's progress, individuals with autism can practice and rehearse encounters with law enforcement in various contexts. The use of virtual reality is one emerging innovation that is yielding positive results.
Officer Laurie Reyes, Autism/Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Outreach Officer for Montgomery County Police Department, provided a law enforcement training perspective and described a layered approach to educating and instructing law enforcement, caregivers as well as those on the spectrum. She encouraged proactive outreach by using their Safety and Wandering Kit, written and social media, and the empowerment of community members and officers. Officer Laurie also stressed the importance of self-disclosure and ID bracelets as well as breaking down barriers of what people in uniform are like so that people view them as helpers even when interacting in uniform.
Finally, Jake Edwards shared his story as a self-advocate and the Chief Autism Ambassador at the Montgomery County Police Department. He shared that "we want to be friends with the police" and "all law enforcement around the country need these trainings on how to best interact with my friends and me." As Jake said, "we all have gifts" so each community member can play a unique role in increasing awareness and improving interactions between law enforcement and individuals with autism.
For more information, the briefing can be viewed via a Facebook Live recording.
The Justice System and Autism in Pennsylvania
Paul Turcotte, MPH., Data Director for the Autism Services, Education, Resources & Training Collaborative (ASERT) Eastern Region at the AJ Drexel Autism Institute
Promising Practices and Innovations in Training
Vijay Ravindran, CEO of Floreo, Inc. a venture-backed start-up developing virtual reality learning for people with autism spectrum disorder.
Perspectives from Law Enforcement
Officer Laurie Reyes, Project Lifesaver/Autism Outreach Coordinator at Montgomery County (MD) Police Department
Perspectives from a Self-Advocate
Jake Edwards, Chief Autism Ambassador at Montgomery Country (MD) Police Department