Autism Answers: Leesburg police train on how to communicate with autistic people

By: WFTV Web Staff

Updated:

LEESBURG, Fla. - Leesburg police officers will get special training this week on how to better deal with autistic people.

The training comes following a bill passed by the Florida Legislature where police departments across the state would have to establish training to help police identify the behavior of autistic individuals.

The bill, which goes into effect in October, requires that as a condition of maintaining their state certificate, all law enforcement officers must receive training relating to autism spectrum disorder.  

Read: 9 Investigates arrests of people with autism

The training must include recognition of the symptoms and characteristics of an individual on the autism disorder spectrum and appropriate responses to an individual exhibiting symptoms and characteristics.

On Monday and Wednesday, officers will learn how to spot autism and the best ways to react.

“It’s really important for everyone to know the signs and symptoms,” said Dr. Cheryl Ecott of the Better Life Behavioral Services of Central Florida, which will be assisting with the training. “Often times kids or adults with autism don’t respond to certain stimuli the same way that other people might respond.”

Officers will learn how to deescalate any heated situations that could occur.

“Often times, they won’t make eye contact, they might turn away. They might not answer your questions,” Ecott said.

Those actions may make officers nervous and on edge.

“Some may be very touchy, and may want to get very close to you and want to hold you and hug you, and things like that,” said Scott Mack of the Leesburg Police Department.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are estimated to have up to seven times more contacts with police in their lifetime than their peers, even though only 20 percent of those are for criminal activity, according to a report.

Read: Florida House votes to require autism training for police

The push for legislation came after a police shooting in North Miami last year left an unarmed black therapist shot and injured while protecting his severely autistic client.

The autistic man had been the intended target in the shooting. Following the shooting, advocates for autistic people called for more training for officers.

Raw: Interview with officer who rescued child talks to WFTV

Palm Bay police officers received similar training already. Officers were later able to use that training to rescue an autistic boy, who is unable to speak, from a pond. 

On Eyewitness News at 5, Channel 9’s Myrt Price will show how the hands-on training will help officers work with autistic people to keep them safe and prevent the worst.

Watch: Officers rescue autistic child from canal

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