First responders learn how to recognize Autism Spectrum Disorder

Local News

BELMONT COUNTY, Ohio (WTRF) – A person who won’t look you in the eye, who might be unsteady on their feet, agitated or pacing–police often tend to take these as signs of guilt, or at least of being under the influence.

In Belmont County, Sheriff Dave Lucas hosted a seminar for first responders about how to recognize Autism Spectrum Disorder and how to interact with people who have it.

People with autism are seven times more likely to interact with police.

Their typical behaviors are easily mistaken for criminal conduct.

“They may be using their hands, wringing their hands, and it may look like someone who’s in crisis in some way,” said Chief Deputy Jon Snowden of the Delaware County Sheriff’s Department.

“They don’t make a lot of eye contact,” explained Carrie Gutowski, lawyer and ASD class trainer. “They have difficulty following directions. They may give unusual answers to questions.”

They are also 160 times more like to die of drowning.

“Children with autism are very attracted to water,” said Gutowski. “We don’t know exactly why that is but we think they may like the sensory experience of how it feels when they touch it, how the light glistens off it of it.”

They said children with autism are escape artists.

They like to go off by themselves and hide in small places.

In one case, they said a child was found hiding in the bottom drawer of the family’s kitchen stove.

“Small places are sort of like a hug, right?” said Gutowski. “Like it helps them stay calm. And so they might go and climb into a nice warm car where they can get away from all the noise around them.”

Belmont County Sheriff Dave Lucas says they get more calls from schools lately, about students with autism.

“If they’re overloaded, they might start acting out,” said Sheriff Lucas. “And if someone doesn’t know how to properly deal with it, we could cause or create more of a problem.”

They say many people with autism can drive.

But when pulled over in traffic, they may be slow to answer, unsteady or slurring their words.

Officers learned that if they don’t smell alcohol, it’s OK to asks directly, “Do you have autism?”

“Absolutely,” said Chief Deputy Scowden. “It’s fine for the officer to ask if they are autistic.”

It can save a lot of misunderstanding.

The trainers said their goal is to get first responders on their way to a call to remind themselves that this may indeed be a criminal, but it may just be a person with autism.”

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