By Briana Vannozzi
Patrick Meade vividly remembers a trip to Party City with his autistic son 10 years ago. It resulted in their first encounter with law enforcement.
“I had to remove Daniel from the area because he was uncontrollably tantruming and little children were unattended walking around him. He would have injured someone so we exited the building fairly quickly. The end result of that was someone thought I abducted a child,” he said.
It’s those very misunderstandings that led to the latest sensitivity training for first responders, being offered by Bancroft — the state’s largest service provider for the developmentally disabled. Camden County Police Department is the first to participate in New Jersey.
“If I am standing too close to Rex and Rex is agitated Rex’s arms length away is that danger zone,” said Bancroft Vice President Karen Parenti.
“It’s hard for police, for the general public to understand that people with autism and developmental disabilities may act differently out in the community,” said Bancroft President and CEO Toni Pergolin.
Police learn how to identify autistic characteristics and best practices for physical and verbal communication. Camden County’s police chief says officers are faced with having to deescalate situations multiple times a day, thousands of times a year.
“Some situations may not require force to be used if they can recognize this is a person who has autism or a mental illness and the reason why they aren’t listening to my commands is not because they’re being obstinate or defiant its because of this condition they have. Therefore here’s a better way to handle it for a more peaceful resolution,” said Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson.
“I can’t imagine the pressure knowing the difference between a young man or woman or a young Daniel with autism, and someone who wants to do harm to you or to somebody else,” said Congressman Donald Norcross.
Two hundred officers will participate in this go around. It’s being rolled out to coincide with Autism Awareness Month.
“In the state of New Jersey one in every 41 babies is born on the autism spectrum. That’s a 12 percent increase in two years, 12 percent,” Pergolin said.
“Autism is often an invisible there’s an expression with in the autism community, if you met one person with autism you’ve met one person,” said Rose Jochum the Director of Internal Initiatives at the Autism Society.
“As long as the officers have the training and understanding on how to deal with an autistic individual in the community as a first responded, positive results will come from it,” Meade said.
Bancroft offers this training free of charge. It’s a year long educational program that will spread to 15 more communities in South Jersey and the tri-state area. Organizers say if it helps just one family, it’s worth the investment.