Note to readers: In each issue of The OARacle, we provide a helpful resource on a topic of interest within the autism community. This month’s article tackles the issue of autism awareness and safety in your community. Special thanks to Dennis Debbaudt, a father of a son with autism and a law enforcement consultant, for his contribution. (Mr. Debbaudt has offered his expertise solely to provide information germane to the autism community. Inclusion of this article is intended strictly for that purpose and not as an endorsement of his consulting business.)
Over the past five years, Dennis Debbaudt has had many conversations with individuals with autism spectrum disorders, their families, police and lawyers. “Too many,” said the father of a 20-year-old son with autism, a longtime law enforcement veteran and consultant on judicial cases related to autism and law. In most cases, the circumstances unfortunately involve an adverse encounter between the police and a child or adult with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) that might have easily been averted with a coordinated effort between parents and local law enforcement agencies in Debbaudt’s estimation. Contact between law enforcement officials and individuals with autism is a lot more common than you might think. Children and adults with developmental disabilities including autism reportedly have up to seven times more contact with law enforcement professionals than others during their lifetimes, according to a 1993 report by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. That data, though a decade old, combined with the national increase in the cases of diagnosed autism, illustrates a mounting problem for parents and law enforcement professionals. Research and crime statistics show that individuals with ASD are more likely to be victims of crime than be a criminal. On the criminal side, individuals with autism are no more or less likely to commit crimes when compared to the general population. In either case, whether assisting a victim or confronting a criminal suspect with an ASD, police and first responders need to have some understanding of ASD and the range of behaviors associated with people diagnosed with them.
Debbaudt has spent the last decade bringing attention to the issue through books, articles, curriculum development and television appearances. He frequently holds workshops for educational institutions, law enforcement agencies, first response teams, criminal justice professionals and educational communities throughout the country about how to recognize the common behaviors and characteristics of individuals with autism and use the best methods of response when facing a sudden interaction with them.
GET TO KNOW THE NEIGHBORS
With summer holidays already here and some children with autism at home or following a shortened school schedule, the need for raising awareness in your neighborhood is critical. While parents should serve as the first line of defense in providing for their child’s safety and preventing any adverse contact between their child and law enforcement, things happen, and try as they might, parents can’t be everywhere. The first thing parents can do is to let all their neighbors know about their child with autism, said Debbaudt. Neighborhood awareness may help parents find a child who is prone to running away without causing alarm to neighbors or involving the police.
“It doesn’t have to be a long presentation on autism,” he explained, “but just let them know about your child and how to reach you.”
Debbaudt encourages parents to also extend the communication to employees at nearby parks, shopping centers and stores. In this case, he recommends parents explain facts about autism and their child.
INCORPORATE EDUCATION INTO YOUR CHILD’S IEP
Another key recommendation by Debbaudt is for parents to address their child’s education about how to communicate with the police in their individualized education plan (IEP). Just as law enforcement personnel need training to recognize and respond to children and adults with autism, he believes individuals with autism need to learn how to deal with police as part of their life skills training.
Though many may doubt that their child will ever come into contact with the police, Debbaudt said parents have to educate and prepare themselves and their children on this issue. Currently, there is a general lack of awareness of the problem in the autism community, he added.
START A DIALOGUE WITH THE LAW ENFORCEMENT COMMUNITY
Debbaudt advises parents to talk with their local law enforcement officials about their child and provide a basic overview of autism with books, printed materials or videos on the topic that have been developed by law enforcement agencies and autism organizations. (For a list of available materials, please visit Debbaudt’s websites listed at the end of the article).
To aid first responding law enforcement professionals, parents can request that these agencies add information to their local 911 database about their child such as his or her likes, dislikes, what frightens them, best communication methods and their contact numbers. This information is especially helpful when a child runs away, he added.
Members of the autism community should also form strategic partnerships with law enforcement agencies and local and state advocacy groups to address these issues. When he holds workshops in communities, Debbaudt encourages groups sponsoring him to bring together members of the communities including parents, police, prosecutors, judges, school administrators and probation officers. In cases where an individual has allegedly committed a crime, autism should be viewed as a mitigating factor. Educating the legal community about autism spectrum disorders can make things easier.
“Partnerships between advocacy group and the law enforcement community are the key to prevention,” he said. “I’d much rather see stories about the community working together than about violent incidents.”
For more information about Dennis Debbaudt and his work, please visit his websites on Avoiding Unfortunate Situations, his autism-related investigative services, and his new Autism Risk Management Project site.