Giving responders a heads up on autism

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  • Courtesy photo Post Falls Police employees Christine Jones and John Mason display autism awareness materials aimed at alerting first responders. The sticker that Jones is holding is a new item available at the police department for families.

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    Kathy Gray and her son, Cody, who has autism, share a light moment during the Night to Shine prom. Kathy is thankful for first responder autism awareness programs aimed at de-escalating tense situations between police and those with disabilities. (Courtesy photo)

  • Courtesy photo Post Falls Police employees Christine Jones and John Mason display autism awareness materials aimed at alerting first responders. The sticker that Jones is holding is a new item available at the police department for families.

  • 1

    Kathy Gray and her son, Cody, who has autism, share a light moment during the Night to Shine prom. Kathy is thankful for first responder autism awareness programs aimed at de-escalating tense situations between police and those with disabilities. (Courtesy photo)

By BRIAN WALKER

Staff Writer

POST FALLS — Kathy Gray recalls a moment several years ago when her son with autism was having a behavioral issue.

Well-intended onlookers called police when they saw Cody start to become physical. The officers appeared as Gray worked to calm her son, something she had done many times before.

Thankfully, Gray said, Cody simply stopped his behavior when he saw police, who make him happy, and he didn't approach the officers as some with autism would.

"It can be scarier for us parents, when police become involved, than dealing with your child," the Hayden woman said.

Educating emergency responders on how to handle situations involving those with disabilities is a nationwide trend, and Post Falls Police has launched a new sticker awareness program to warn responders that they may be facing an incident involving a person with autism when they arrive.

The free yellow stickers are available at the police department for families to place on their front doors or vehicle windows.

"It could keep a potential dangerous encounter from happening," Post Falls Police Chief Pat Knight said. "If it's predictable, it's preventable, so we'd like to get out ahead of these situations. These will give us a clue on what we could be responding to. This does nothing but improve our chances of a successful encounter with someone with autism."

Those with autism may not respond to verbal commands, or they might run toward an officer in an emergency, re-enter a dangerous environment or reach for shiny objects such as badges, handcuffs or weapons.

Officers are trained to respond to such reactions in a different manner when dealing with someone with autism, Knight said.

Police are being trained to de-escalate tense situations involving those with autism by communicating calmly, in a soft voice and with direct and short phrases. Responders are also trained to allow for a delayed response.

Post Falls Detective John Mason came up with the sticker idea and worked with the department's crime victim advocacy unit to launch the program. The stickers are an extension of another autism awareness move the department made two years ago in which those with autism carry yellow cards to show responders.

"Anything that increases awareness and gives law enforcement information before responding is a positive thing," said Jennifer Cork, president of the Panhandle Autism Society.

Cork said other awareness steps, including alert codes involving police dispatchers, have occurred locally.

"Officers' response is going to be very different if they know somebody has a disability," she said.

Knight said he hopes other area response agencies will consider using the sticker or a similar program if they haven't already. He said his department is making Kootenai County Fire and Rescue, which serves Post Falls, aware of the program so those responders can also be given a heads-up.

Cork said there has been a rise in tense interactions between those with disabilities and police on the national level.

"This is the first generation of adults (with disabilities) who have been able to live more outside institutions, which is positive, but it's also required more training for these kinds of situations," Cork said. "When this was occurring in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, there wasn't funding for research and new programs, so everybody is scrambling to do what they can."

Cork said the nonprofit has helped organize seminars with local law enforcement agencies on situations involving those with disabilities.

Gray said she intends to pick up any items that bring autism awareness to responders.

"If they know that there's someone with autism where they are responding to, they can approach things differently," she said.

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