LEESBURG — How can police communicate with someone who is incapable of responding appropriately, especially if their nerves are frayed and “routine” traffic stops can explode in violence?
That is the challenge in dealing with autistic people, and officers this week are “learning some of the tricks to de-escalate a situation and not make it worse,” said Lt. Scott Mack.
Depending upon the person and the degree of the mental illness, autistic people can be locked into rigid routines, unable to understand complex orders and be incapable of picking up on normal social cues, including the sharing of emotions and even making eye contact.
“If they’re a passenger in a car driven by mom and the car is stopped, they may just get out of the car because that’s what they’re used to doing. In our line of work, we want people to stay in the car. It makes it safer for everyone,” Mack said.
Last year, a North Miami police officer responding to a call about a disturbed man handling a handgun shot an unarmed caretaker of an autistic man. The autistic man was actually handling a toy truck while the caretaker was lying on the ground with his hands in the air begging police not to shoot. The officer was charged with attempted manslaughter and the city has been sued, according to the Miami Herald.
Mack is getting help from Cheryl Ecott, Ph.D., a board-certified behavioral analyst who runs Better Life Behavioral Services of Central Florida. She is not only lecturing the officers, but bringing them to meet her young students at Better Life Academy in Leesburg.
Autistic children can be especially vulnerable.
They sometimes have no perception of danger from cars in the street or drowning in pools. They can also wander off. “They want to go to the store and they don’t ask, they just go,” she said.
One of the things she is telling officers about is what she calls “core deficits.”