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Aspinwall officer leads effort to ensure proper work with people with autism

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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 7:24 p.m.
 

Scott Bailey wants to make sure his fellow police officers and first responders are trained to deal with people with autism.

Bailey, a part-time officer for Aspinwall and Millvale and also a 911 dispatcher for Allegheny County and the father of a child with autism, was one of several people to testify at a hearing on autism training last week.

State Rep. Dom Costa (D-21) oversaw the hearing in Sharpsburg. He was joined by State Reps. Frank Burns (D-72) and Robert Matzie (D-16) and state Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-40).

With a growing number of children being diagnosed with autism, the need for officers to be trained in how to handle situations involving an autistic person has grown.

One option available is for residents to fill out a premise hazard form that can provide information to officers through their computer system when responding to a call. Bailey said that service needs to be better advertised so more people can take advantage of it.

Bailey also suggested special training for officers on understanding autism.

He also said work is needed at the judicial level.

“We're not looking for excuses, we're looking for fairness,” Bailey said.

He suggested a special autism court could be an option, but Tom Swan, deputy district attorney, said that idea did not receive much support.

Jessica Strong, founder and director of Strong Trainings, spoke about the need for mental health first aid and how people can better understand the experiences of someone with mental illnesses.

That help can go beyond just dealing with other individuals and can prevent problems from escalating, she said.

“It helps recognize symptoms that are developing in the person themselves and helps them seek help faster,” Strong said.

Kelly Wall, Montgomery County Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge, said her court has focused on creating an autism awareness program. She said more children are being diagnosed with autism and many of them are likely to have interactions with the legal system.

“The court system must be prepared to deal with these numbers,” Wall said.

Bailey said legal cases involving autism often deserve special attention, especially when considering punishment or a jail sentence.

“They already have a life sentence and that life sentence is autism,” Bailey said.

Costa thanked the participants for their testimony and said it was a learning experience for himself and the other officials. He said there was still work to be done.

“We don't want to reinvent the wheel we just have to find a vehicle to put this all together,” Costa said.

Tom McGee is an associate editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 1513 or tmcgee@tribweb.com.

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