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Local officials work to increase autism awareness

Lake County News - 5/1/2017

Clearlake Police Officer Jared Nixon walks with a 12-year-old boy with autism through the streets of Clearlake, Calif., during a night in April 2017. Photo by Sgt. Travis Lenz.

CLEARLAKE, Calif. ? The goal of expanding the understanding of autism spectrum disorder, its impacts on families and society at large has been recognized throughout the country this month, with with local officials sharing their experiences as part of the effort.

April is Autism Awareness Month, part of an effort first launched nearly a quarter century ago by the Autism Society in an effort to educate society, and insure inclusion and self-determination for those with autism spectrum disorder.

Autism typically manifests itself during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain.

So far, researchers have not settled on a single cause for autism spectrum disorder, but it's attributed to abnormalities in brain structure and function, according to the Autism Society.

At Thursday night's Clearlake City Council meeting, there was a particularly poignant presentation of a proclamation for Autism Awareness Month made by Vice Mayor Bruno Sabatier and Mayor Russ Perdock for Autism Awareness Month.

Sabatier said he and his wife have been reading "Sticks and Stones: A Father's Journey into Autism," by Hank Smith, a local teacher and author.

In reading the book, Sabatier said he and his wife have cried as they've seen their own son's experiences reflected in the pages.

"I would never change my son for who he is," said Sabatier.

Sabatier and Perdock presented the proclamation to Adelia Klein-Leonard, who said her three children have autism.

Sabatier read the proclamation, which stated that "the prevalence and high rate of autism in children in all regions of the world and the consequent development challenges to long-term health care, education, training and intervention programs undertaken by government, non-profit organizations, and the private sector, as well as its tremendous impact on children, their families, communities and societies is deeply concerning."

The proclamation gave an estimate that one in every 86 children in America is growing up on the autism spectrum.

However, Klein-Leonard pointed to new research that shows that one in 45 children will present on the spectrum.

Those numbers come from a National Health Statistics Report from November 2015 that studied the estimated prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in 2014, finding that it had a "significant increase" from 2011 to 2013, when an estimated one children in 80 were identified.

The Centers for Disease Control Web site gives different numbers, citing its Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network estimate that one in 68 children have been identified, with the condition 4.5 times more common in boys than in girls.

Increasing knowledge about autism also is informing how members of the Clearlake Police Department approach their work.

Earlier this month, Officer Jared Nixon, who has been with the department for 18 months, was on routine nighttime patrol on Lakeshore Drive when he came across an individual walking along the side of the road.

Nixon said he noticed the person had an awkward gait and was moving his arms in an odd way, which he said typically is an indication that a person may be under the influence.

He said he approached the subject, a large young male, and asked him if he was OK. When Nixon looked into his face, he realized he was only a child.

Nixon, who has a son with special needs, quickly realized during their initial interaction that the youngster he had encountered has autism.

He said he was able to identify the young man as a 12-year-old named Osiris thanks to a hospital wristband he was wearing. Otherwise, Osiris wasn't able to communicate.

Nixon let dispatch know that he was out with the young man, and then asked Osiris if he wanted to get into his patrol car. But Osiris just kept walking, and seemed to know where he was going.

Concerned about Osiris' safety, and having no other immediate calls, Nixon decided to stay with him. "We just started walking together."

Nixon's supervisor, Sgt. Travis Lenz, pulled up behind them, put on his red and blue lights, and slowly followed along to light their way.

During this time, they were able to contact Osiris' guardian, his aunt, through the Records Information Management System, Nixon said.

Based on that contact, they determined that Osiris had walked all the way from 36th Avenue, on the other side of town, and that he was probably heading toward Mullen, to a home where a family member had lived, Nixon said.

Nixon said Osiris had taken his aunt's car keys. He called his other partner officer, who came and retrieved the keys and took them to the aunt so she could drive to meet them.

Meantime, Nixon and Osiris continued to walk together, with Osiris wanting to hold the officer's hand. Nixon also took out his cell phone and played music for Osiris.

When they got to the home on Mullen, Osiris was distraught because the people in the house weren't who he thought they would be, Nixon said.

Nixon said he and Lenz hugged Osiris, patting him on the back and trying to soothe him until his aunt arrived. When she did, Osiris quickly climbed into the car with her to go home.

Osiris' guardian had left the hospital wristband on him in case he got lost, Nixon said.

Nixon said he thought it was a great idea to have identification on Osiris, but he was concerned about all of the personal information it also had on it.

So Nixon paid to have a specialized wristband made for Osiris, with his aunt's contact information on it, through an Etsy shop. It was shipped to him a few days later and he delivered it to Osiris and his aunt.

Police training today is becoming more progressive and including more training on recognizing issues with developmental issues, cognitive conditions and mental health, said Nixon.

He said it's especially important to pay attention to such issues, as in some cases misunderstandings of a person's behavior have led to fatal confrontations with police in other parts of the country.

Also, in Osiris' case, Nixon worried that the young man could have been hit by a car had he continued walking through the city at night, on his own.

Nixon's coworkers and supervisors have lauded him for going more than the extra mile ? literally ? to care for the young man.

"Any one of may partners would have done the exact same thing, I just happened to be the one on call that night," Nixon said.

Email Elizabeth Larson at elarson@lakeconews.com . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.

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