DA offers officers autism awareness services

Patrick Varine
| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 7:36 p.m.

Autism Society of Pittsburgh President Dan Torisky knows how hard it can be to recognize on the spot that someone has autism.

“It often takes a psychiatrist several hours to properly reach a diagnosis,” he said.

So, for emergency responders, such as emergency medical technicians or police, knowledge that they are responding to a situation involving a person with autism can be a big help.

The Allegheny County District Attorney's office last week announced new services for Allegheny County parents of children with autism and caregivers of people with dementia, along with more training for both law-enforcement officers and parents of those with special needs.

The second phase of this countywide effort encourages those parents or caretakers to register with local police departments. About 3,000 packets, containing forms for personal information and stickers for home and car windows, now are available at all local departments.

The information can describe the person as deaf, blind or having intellectual disabilities or dementia. It can call attention to a person's use of oxygen or fear of dogs. The information will be sent to Allegheny County's 9-1-1 Communications Center to be used in an emergency.

“As we looked around the country, we saw stories of more and more actions misinterpreted, sometimes with unfortunate results,” said Deputy District Attorney Tom Swan, who is on the board of directors of the Autism Center of Pittsburgh and whose son has autism.

Swan co-produced a 20-minute DVD, “Encountering Autism,” that was given to each of the county's 130 municipalities earlier this year as part of the program's first phase.

One in 68 children in the U.S. has an autism-spectrum disorder, according to a report released in March by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“It teaches our officers how to handle it,” Carnegie police Chief Jeffrey Kennedy said. “Police should know how to deal with people who have autism.”

Parents also can sign up for Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization that responds when adults or children wander because of issues with Alzheimer's, autism and other conditions. Those enrolled wear a small personal transmitter around the wrist or ankle that emits a tracking signal. If a client goes missing, the caregiver notifies a local Project Lifesaver agency, and a team responds.

Two officers from each of these departments are being trained to track those who wander: Aspinwall, Bethel Park, McKeesport, Millvale, Moon Township, Monroeville, Northern Regional, Pittsburgh, Elizabeth Borough and Munhall, Swan said.

The closest team will travel to the jurisdiction to assist in the search.

Money seized during drug prosecutions is paying for equipment for families such as tracking bracelets, which cost $300; batteries; locking devices; and door alarms, Swan said.

The third phase of the program will be the training of caregivers and teachers, who deal with people with special needs who are higher functioning.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com. Staff writer Megan Guza contributed to this report.

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