Project First Responder
On a daily basis, law enforcement officers encounter a multitude of individuals in emergency situations. Just as each emergency differs from the next, so does the individual involved, especially in regards to people with Autism, Alzheimer's, Intellectual & Development Disabilities (AAIDD). Law enforcement officers are trained to respond to a crisis situation with a certain protocol, but this protocol may not always be the best way to interact with people with autism. Because law enforcement officers are usually the first to respond to an emergency, it is critical that these officers have a working knowledge of autism and the wide variety of behaviors those with autism can exhibit in emergency situations. The following disorders, syndromes, and injuries can also have the same or similar affects: Alzheimer's, dementia, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, cognitive delay, Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and more.
Individuals with autism are seven times more likely to come in contact with law enforcement officers than their [neuro]typical peers (Curry, 1993). Coupled with an autistic person’s social differences and inability to communicate effectively,these interactions can often lead to misunderstandings or even tragedies.
As children with autism mature, a broader understanding of the disorder and individuals affected by it will be critical for safe and successful interactions within the community at large, as well as in emergency situations. Teaching first responders the classic signs of autism is an important first step toward preventing unfavorable situations.
A person with autism might among other things:
- Have an impaired or false heightened sense of danger
- Wander to bodies of water, traffic, or other dangers
- Be overwhelmed by law enforcement presence
- Fear a person in uniform (ex. fire turnout gear)
- Exhibit curiosity and reach for objects/equipment (ex. shiny badge, handcuffs, or even firearms)
- React with "fight or flight"
- Not respond to "stop" or other commands OR become angry, agitated, or upset by such “firm” commands
- Have delayed speech and language skills, or have perfect speech but the inability to communicate needs and feelings effectively
- Not respond to his/her name or verbal commands
- Avoid eye contact
- Engage in repetitive behavior/stimming (self-stimulatory behavior - rocking, hand flapping, spinning)
- Have sensory perception challenges
- Have epilepsy or other seizure disorder.
If a first responder is able to identify that a child or adult may have autism, he or she can then respond in a way that best supports the individual.
Project First Responder
Learning to interact with first responders is critical. It is just as essential for first responders to understand how to effectively deal with our citizens who are part of the autism, Alzheimer's, Intellectual & Development Disabilities (AAIDD) community. This is the reason Louisa County Sheriff's Office started Project First Responder; to begin to break the misguided communication between law enforcement and the AAIDD community. It is imperative that all entities involved learn to work together to make these interactions safe, successful and productive.
It seems there are frightening, tragic headlines involving law enforcement virtually every day. For families of people with autism, Alzheimer's, or other Intellectual and Development Disabilities (AAIDD), the concern about their loved one’s world clashing with law enforcement can be terrifying. Fear, suspicion, and the resulting increase in violence across the world only make things worse.
These families feel particularly uneasy as they have to deal with the daily stresses of AAIDD, as well as negotiate the unpredictability of the outside world. For many, AAIDD leads almost inevitably to some form of interaction with law enforcement. During a crisis, the difference between aid and tragedy often comes down to a law enforcement officer’s familiarity with, and response to all forms of AAIDD. Children and adults who have difficulty processing stressful situations may exhibit behaviors that are unfamiliar to many creating possible communication problems. The biggest question is, of course, is law enforcement prepared to deal with our loved ones in a way that ensures the best outcome? Unfortunately at this time, throughout the US, the current overarching answer is, no.
The Louisa County Sheriff's Office is developing a program to assist first responders by trying to improve these outcomes for people with AAIDD. The Project First Responder program will allow family members and other caregivers to provide crucial information about their loved ones to first responders, prior to any reported incidents. The information will be utilized by emergency personnel to properly respond to situations involving AAIDD children or adults with details about proper interaction and care. We are also working to improve training and awareness of our officers through the use of interaction and incident simulation with the assistance of those afflicted with any type of AAIDD.
Joining the Program
Families, caretakers, or anyone else interested in the program can either fill out and submit the "Voluntary Autism, Alzheimer's / Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities Informational Form" online or download the form and mail or bring it to the Louisa County Sheriff's Office.