Mar 28, 2014 2:42 PM by Bret Buganski

First responders train to interact with those with autism

TUCSON, AZ -The number of kids with an autism spectrum disorder is on the rise. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control says 1 in 54 boys will be diagnosed with autism.

And one group expert says unfortunately, those kids are at a higher risk when it comes to dealing with law enforcement because what they say and how they act can be misunderstood.

On Thursday morning at Alice Vail Middle School, several first responders in southern Arizona took part in a training seminar where they were taught how to interact with those with autism. One of the exercises they did was put paperclips on index cards wearing oven mitts. This proved to be difficult for all of the first responders.

"We make the point that every day tasks that are easy for us can very very difficult for people with autism," said Emily Iland, an autism activist, who teaches first responders across the country about the challenges people with autism go through.

And like the old saying goes, you can't really know someone until you walk a mile in his or her shoes.

"You can kind of related to someone with autism how frustrating that can be if you're giving somebody a specific task to do, and they just can't quite get it," said Chris Scheller, a Green Valley fire fighter, who was one of many who went through the exercises. He learned that by slowing his speech down, and giving more time to someone with autism while on a stress call will make all the difference.

"it kind of enlightenens you to think outside the box a little bit instead of just thinking, it's someone with a mental illness or maybe they are under the influence of alcohol," said Scheller.

Scheller and others also learned how to be able to see the non verbal signs.

"For example, the person doesn't look at the officer, the officer is going to think that's a sign of guilt, but really the person with autism is not comfortable with making eye contact," added Iland.

"I now have a son who is now being diagnosed as having autism," said retired Tucson police officer Mike Olbert. For Olbert, this training doesn't mean preferrential treatment, but rather accommodation.

"To realize that person isn't being difficult, it's just maybe they don't understand what's going on," said Olbert.

After training, these first responders said they not only were going to put these tool into practice, but they were also planning on passing on these methods to the rest of their departments.

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