Police are learning how to handle those on the autism spectrum – and it’s coming from one of their own

NORFOLK — Lt. Alan Johnson of the city’s police department is working to make sure that every officer learns how to recognize and handle a person on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) through his two-hour training course.

Johnson’s involvement with ASD hits close to home. His 9-year-old son Joseph is on the spectrum.

“I want them to experience what I’m talking about,” he said, “I think that it’s important that they [police officers] know how to deal with people like this,” Johnson said.

Johnson leads the two-hour training given to all new recruits that come through the academy. He’s currently working on bringing the training to all current officers within the department.

“Norfolk Police Department is a forward thinking organization,” he said.

Training officers

A big portion of the training is dealing with what Johnson calls “elopement,” which is when an individual who is on the spectrum runs away.

One of his training tools are videos that show a good and a bad handling of a situation with someone on the spectrum.

The top things that Johnson teaches in his courses about ASD are:

  • Understanding that their senses are out of sync.
  • They often can’t distinguish between won’t and can’t.
  • They are concrete thinkers, meaning they interpret literally.
  • Some are nonverbal (and how to handle those situations).
  • They are visually oriented and may need visual signs to know what to do or where to go.
  • Officers should focus on what the individual can and can’t do.
  • Understanding social interactions between others and those with ASD.
  • What can trigger a meltdown.
  • Love them unconditionally.

“I want officers to treat them as if they’re their own,” Johnson said.

For families with relatives on the spectrum who have gone on elopement or are in a crisis situation, Johnson wants them to let officers know if they’re on the spectrum, what can trigger a meltdown and so on.

“Give us a heads up of what we’re getting into,” he said.

In addition to teaching the two-hour course, Johnson is working on creating information cards for police cruisers that explain to officers how to communicate with those who have ASD, what are common ASD behaviors and how to handle the situation safely.

“We want to persuade rather than put our hands on them,” he said.

Johnson said a lot of his training stems from his concerns of how officers might treat someone with ASD if they are not properly trained.

“We are taking a proactive step to learning how to deal with people on the spectrum,” Johnson said.

Officers from both the Norfolk and Virginia Beach police departments will be at the Autism Speaks Safety Fair on April 6 at Harbor Park Lots.

The event is free and open to the public.

Click here to register.

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