GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In April 2012, a 19-year-old autistic man argued with his parents in the lobby of the Kent County Courthouse.
Deputies reacted as the man raised his fist.
The 19-year-old fought back.
His father intervened, trying to calm him down.
The 19-year-old then spent time in a holding cell while a judge sorted out the incident.
Police officers have been dealing with people with autism for years. And now, they’re getting a better perspective on how to handle those situations.
“A person with autism is several times more likely to come in contact with law enforcement than a member of the general public,” said Scott Schuelke, who is the autism safety expert with the Autism Alliance of Michigan.
Schuelke presented Thursday at the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police Mid-Winter Conference at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids.
The retired Lansing police officer’s mission is to educate other police officers and first responders on how to identify and deal with a person with autism.
Often, a person with autism isn’t doing anything wrong. But to a police officer, their behavior could be suspicious.
The key for officers is to know what to look for and how to react. For example, about half of those with autism don’t speak.
“Doesn’t mean they don’t understand what you’re saying. We’re teaching [the officers] that just because they’re not making eye contact, [it] doesn’t mean they’re not telling you the truth,” Schuelke said. “It’s a whole different way of thinking for police officers.”
The other challenge is that officers need to make those evaluations in a matter of seconds.
“Very tough. They could have been sent on a call where someone has called in and said the person’s intoxicated, they’re high on drugs… they’re just crazy,” Schuelke said. “They have to make that split-second decision.”
In the Kent County Courthouse case, deputies and other emergency responders met with Autism Support of Kent County to get educated.
Schulkle said he’s training more and more law enforcement personnel and first responders every day.
“The reception is, ‘this is training we should have had 25 years ago,’” Schuelke said.
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