Deputies train for encounters with people who have autism

- Not long after the birth of my first son, I remember saying to my mom, “If this were a job, I’d quit.”  My son was barely a few months old, but I literally felt his pain every time he cried.  I didn’t like feeling responsible. 

Over the years, I, sort of got used to it as I felt more of his pain but relished his joy too.

Those memories came flooding back to me as I watched two moms masterfully handle their children with autism. Joy beamed with pride as her son, Sam, managed to engage a LA Co. Sheriff’s deputy taking a special training program in the City of Industry.  

Sam was charming and the deputies knew that he had autism.   

So for those minutes, his mom Joy could feel safe that if Sam ever encountered one of those men and women, they  would recognize his mannerisms, his speech pattern, the fact that he couldn’t quite recite his phone number as aspects of his autism.  

Another mom brought her daughter Sydney and explained as the girl twirled and vocalized that she too had autism. She warned deputies not to mistake the roughness on her knuckles or the redness on her wrists as signs of abuse. Sydney’s version of autism made her tap her teeth with her knuckles and when agitated, she’d bite her wrists.  Both moms allowed their children to be a part of the deputies’ training to help them better understand autism. 

The autistic have a tendency to wander away from their homes, what the autistic community calls elopement.  The fear,  for these moms was their child would elope and encounter law enforcement.  Would they recognize the autism in them or mistake their inability to follow orders as disrespect or mental illness.

The Kelly Thomas story sent chills down the spine of Cory Moss.  She’s the Mayor Pro Tem of the City of Industry.  Her son Brayden is a  little boy with autism now, but she knows someday he’ll be grown up and big.   If Brayden eloped from the safety of his home, would law enforcement misunderstand his behavior.  Moss didn’t just worry about her son and others with autism; she did something about it. 

She got funding from to the city to train deputies stationed at the LA County Sheriff’s Industry Station.  

Kate Movius, herself a mother of a teen with autism, developed the program,  Autism Interaction Solutions.  In order to help deputies and other first responders understand what it’s like to have autism, she asks for  a volunteer.  The day I was there, a deputy sat in the middle of the room.   He was instructed to count in increments of 3.  Other deputies were called up to stand around him and create cacophony.  

Later, all the deputies donned sunglasses that obscured their vision.  They were given a simple quiz, but told to write their answers while using their non-dominant hand.  While the deputies struggled with the test,  Kate played loud music, then periodically switched it to static, then back again to music.

Afterward, Kate told the deputies, they had just had a taste of what it’s like to be autistic; to be so distracted that following simple orders is nearly impossible. 

As a sheriff’s deputy, you never know who or what you’ll encounter on the job.  Kate showed them body cam video from police officers dealing with an adult with autism.  He didn’t follow their orders and eventually, he was manhandled and forced to the ground while he cried that he just wanted to go home.  LA Co. Sheriff’s Deputy Erico Sandoval gave high marks to the training.  He shuddered to think how he’d feel  if he was among the officers that had mishandled and misunderstood the autistic man.

Kudos to the deputies for taking the autism training and connecting with the kids.  Kudos to Cory and Kate who brought the training to them.  And, kudos to all parents who deal with the frustration of autism every day and literally feel their child’s pain.

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