Police to get educated on recognizing autism

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:02 p.m.

The Allegheny County District Attorney's office is spearheading an initiative to train police officers how to better recognize and handle people with autism.

A 20-minute roll call video was produced by deputy district attorney Tom Swan and WQED's Michael Bartley to take officers through different scenarios they might encounter with autistic people, such as wandering, not understanding or responding appropriately to commands and sensitivity to stimuli.

“We're not trying to make anybody an expert, but just to have some awareness and compassion and understand what could be happening,” said Aspinwall police officer Scott Bailey.

The initiative began with Bailey, of West Deer, who has two sons with autism spectrum disorder. He approached Swan and the district attorney's office with his idea for new training on autism.

“If you've read headlines recently around the country, there have been a lot of incidents where an autistic person involved in the situation was misinterpreted and seen as threatening,” said Swan, a Richland resident whose son, Kevin, has autism.

The training video and the other awareness initiatives are among the first of their kind in the country, Swan said.

“There have been other videos that have existed, but the training is extensive, takes hours. This video is short, you can take it home. It's a lot easier to do it this way,” he said.

The video will be distributed to Allegheny's 120 police departments in March. It was filmed in various locations throughout northern Allegheny County, including Richland, Hampton and West Deer, and is based on scenarios that have occurred before in the state, Bailey said.

It was paid for through drug forfeiture funds, Swan said.

Bailey's sons, Trent and Trevor, and Swan's son, Kevin, a Pine-Richland junior, participated in the film. Tommy Waites, also a Pine-Richland junior and Swan's neighbor, also played a role in the film, although he does not have autism.

“I think a lot of this is an eye opener,” Bailey said. “As law enforcement, we get too complacent in our daily routine. Some of the things can mask odd behavior because we find it to be defiant somehow.”

Along with the training video, information packets, including premise hazard alert forms, are being distributed to each police department. Premise hazard alert forms can be filled out by families who wish to inform law enforcement agencies of a special needs resident in case of emergency.

The stickers, Bailey's brainchild, are meant for a person's house or car to alert first responders that a special needs person might be inside. It will also inform them that “simple commands may not be understood.”

There also are three different grants available to people in the county who are on the autism spectrum. One is for a specially trained K-9 companion for an autistic person that tends to wander.

Another is for a GPS tracking monitor for those who wander. If the person with autism does not like dogs or is sensitive to touch, there is a grant for locking mechanism for the person's house to prevent them from escaping or wandering off.

Rachel Farkas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-779-6902 or rfarkas@tribweb.com.

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