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Penn Hills police gear up on dealing with special-needs people

Patrick Varine
| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton wants his officers to be able to respond to any situation armed with the proper training and knowledge.

So when a DVD about autism arrived for Burton to show his officers, he viewed it as a welcome refresher.

“Two or three years ago, as part of our regular training, we did a four-hour segment on dealing with people with autism and special needs,” Burton said.

“The officers were aware of it, and this just sort of reaffirms what we were taught.”

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 EMTs or police, knowledge that they are responding to a situation involving an autistic person can be a big help.

The Allegheny County District Attorney's office this week announced new services for Allegheny County parents of autistic children or caregivers to people with Alzheimer's or dementia, along with more training for both law enforcement and parents of those with special needs.

Money seized during drug prosecutions is paying for equipment for families such as tracking bracelets, transmitters and batteries, locking devices and door alarms, Deputy District Attorney Tom Swan said.

Earlier this year, District Attorney Stephen Zappala's office distributed a DVD to police across Allegheny County, showing ways to properly interact with people with autism.

Parents of special-needs individuals are encouraged to register with local police departments.

Swan said there has been an overall lack of awareness when it came to law enforcement interaction with autistic people.

“As we looked around the country, we saw stories of more and more actions misinterpreted, sometimes with unfortunate results,” Swan said.

The district attorney's office prepared the 20-minute DVD that has been shown to officers during roll call in many of the county's 130 municipalities.

Parents also can sign up for Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit that responds when adults and children wander due to issues with Alzheimer's, autism, and other conditions, the district attorney's office said.

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.

Swan also said training will be offered for parents who might have to interact with police.

Burton said his office has received few calls about children with autism or other conditions wandering, but police want to work with parents to prepare officers for such situations.

“We have packets here for parents to fill out,” Burton said. “There's a number of forms that they fill out and send to the 911 center. If we have a call, 911 will red-flag that address, so as soon as that call comes in, 911 sees it, and they'll let us know that there's a child with autism there.”

Torisky, 82, said his son, Edward, is registered both at Torisky's Monroeville home and the group home where Edward lives in Moon Township.

“This way, if he's picked up or involved in a tense, rapidly evolving situation, they're able to say, ‘That's Ed,' and they know how to act accordingly and what to do,” Torisky said.

The DVD distributed to police piggybacks on a film the Autism Society of Pittsburgh created about a decade ago, Torisky said.

Parent Kim Lyons of Penn Hills, who has two sons with autism, said she is anxious to find out more about the new programs.

“I've had to call the Penn Hills police twice about my son (when he left the house) since I couldn't find him and needed help,” she said. “It happens. He's very quick.”

Torisky said Autism Society officials are expanding their training to include all levels of the legal system, “from patrol and probation officers all the way up to magistrates and judges.

“They want their people to be able to do this, because it reduces their problems and reduces the likelihood of a situation escalating to catastrophic proportions.”

For more information, contact the district attorney's office at 412-350-4400 or Penn Hills police at 412-798-2035.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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