Autism poses special challenges for police, emergency personnel

Autistic children and adults present special challenges to law enforcement personnel and other first emergency responders.

That message was driven home by Dennis Debbaudt, father of an autistic son who lectures nationwide about the problems people face including emergency responders in dealing with those with the neuro-developmental disability.

Debbaudt appeared this week at the Community Arts Center, Williamsport to present workshops on autism awareness including Friday’s “Autism Risk & Safety Management Seminar” for first responders.

A former police investigator who has spoken and written extensively about autism, he talked about a defining moment in his own life some years ago.

At a suburban Detroit shopping mall, his autistic son had an emotional meltdown, not unlike a temper tantrum.

Debbaudt literally picked up his son and left the mall.

In the meantime, police were summoned, and when they arrived, Debbaudt was stopped and informed that they were responding to multiple reports of a child abduction.

He explained to police his child was autistic.

Debbaudt acknowledged that in recent years there has been an increased awareness of autism.

Latest figures show that as many as one in 50 children has some form of autism, which can range from the milder form known as asperger’s syndrome to more severe cases.

Still, much education about autism remains to be done.

“Children and adults with autism are more like us than not,” he said.

But it’s those differences that many people may not understand.

Local noted businessman Blaise Alexander, the grandfather of an autistic child, noted in most cases autistic people look no different than most people.

It’s how they behave.

“We have to learn to do deal with it,” he said. “You can’t really change them.”

Alexander said many autistic children grow up to be remarkable adults.

“Our society is quick to judge,” he said.

Debbaudt noted that autistic people often lack social skills. Many times, they focus on a narrow range of interests.

Often defined and used to routine, they can become highly agitated when they find themselves out of their comfort zone.

Law enforcement appearing on a scene with sirens wailing and lights flashing can highly upset an autistic person, causing emotional outbursts that first responders may interpret as threats.

Not surprisingly, misunderstandings can arise.

Many autistic people will mimic or parrot back what people say to them, which can create its own problems.

About 50 percent of autistic people are non-verbal.

While some autistic people are highly intelligent, some are not.

Debbaudt said safety to first responders and citizens is improved through a better understanding of autism.

And, better communication can help avoid bad situations which often lead to costly litigation.

Debbaudt said it’s also important to note that autistic people are much more likely to be victimized than other people.