OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. - With autism rates at an all-time high in the United States, experts say law enforcement officers are having more and more encounters with autistic people, and sometimes those with autism end up behind bars.
Channel 9's Jeff Deal examined the issue and learned about the special training many officers are now getting to deal with this special group.
Deal attended the court appearance of a young child with autism as
the child spoke to Orange Circuit Judge Reginald Whitehead.
“Young man, what's your name?” Whitehead asked.
“Ryan Bates,” the child responded.
“How old are you?” Whitehead asked.
“Eleven," the boy said.
Ryan, a fifth-grader, was arrested on four criminal charges for a violent outburst at Vista Lakes Elementary School in March.
“Ryan got upset, as he sometimes does, and he was having trouble controlling his emotions,” the boy’s mother, Kristine Bates, said.
Ryan is diagnosed with autism. It’s a diagnosis that has grown more common in recent years.
“We're definitely seeing a lot more interaction with law enforcement,” said Donna Lorman, of the Autism Society of Greater Orlando.
And Lorman said not all of the interaction is good.
She points to cases like Ryan's and the case of Aubrey Lewis, who was arrested in a prostitution sting after
he agreed to pay an undercover officer for sex, deputies said.
“He said, 'Yes,' but probably had no idea what he was agreeing to,” Lorman explained.
That is why Lorman offers free training to law enforcement officers.
She used a young man with autism to show law enforcement officers in Osceola County how eager many with autism are to comply with requests and how their responses can often be misinterpreted.
During the demonstration, when one officer asked the autistic man if he waived his rights, the young man stood looking nervous for a few moments and then waved his right hand.
Lorman takes time to show officers how to recognize the signs and de-escalate a situation when someone with autism is upset.
During her presentation to the Osceola law enforcement officers, she cited “hand movements, toe walking (and) verbal stems” as signs of nervousness and stress.
Lorman’s trainings are in demand, with requests from law enforcement agencies on the rise.
“With my background, with my son being autistic, I really wanted to take that class,” said Orlando Police Department
Detective Brian Ferrara.
Ferrara recently brought what he learned in the class back to Orlando Police Department and feels other officers were receptive.
Ferrara said he also learned from what the other officers shared.
"Just hearing the stories about some people being arrested, autistic people being arrested and (the suspects) not really understanding what they were doing," he said.
Meanwhile, Donna Lorman and Ryan Bates' family believe autism training should be required for all Florida law enforcement.
Ryan’s charges were eventually dropped, but they said his arrest was traumatic.
“I just thought I could just, I wanted to die at that moment,” Ryan told Deal.
Advocates for people with autism believe incidents like Ryan’s could be de-escalated before they lead to an arrest.
Lorman said she has even been asked to work with the U.S. Attorney General's
Office as it tries to find ways to deal with people with autism.