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Chatham County police participate in autism awareness training

Savannah Morning News - 8/23/2018

Aug. 23--The Chatham County Police department is working to ensure that its officers are prepared for every situation.

So command staff and select officers spent their Wednesday morning in autism awareness training to help familiarize officers with autism spectrum disorder.

"It's important because we're bridging the gap of understanding about children that are on the autism spectrum and when we as police officers may have to encounter them out in the public," said police Chief Jeff Hadley. "We can have some level of awareness."

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates autism's prevalence as 1 in 59 children in the United States. That includes 1 in 37 boys and 1 in 151 girls.

"I was ignorant to the fact that that some autistic kids are non-verbal and used devices to communicate," said Hadley. "Well if we're out there and encounter an autistic child who is reaching for this device whether it be underneath his clothing or in a backpack, an officer could mistake that for reaching for a weapon. We don't want that."

The idea for training was spurred after a November interaction between police and an autistic 14-year-old boy.

Officers were unaware that the child was autistic and the situation could have escalated, according to his mother, Christie Belle.

"(My son) was with a new provider and having a meltdown," she said. "Kids on the spectrum tend to like routine and consistency. He had tore down a handicap parking sign. The police were called. But when I got home that night, the incident didn't sit well with me because he is non-verbal and uses a communication device. My thoughts went to 'What would happen if he reached for this device and it was perceived as a weapon?' This could have turned out to be a different story."

So Belle approached Hadley with an education plan.

"I'm very excited about the training," Belle said. "It's not just my son, it's for any parent. These are our children. And if they're going into the community we want them to be safe. And the chief was very open to it."

From 10 am to noon, officers from the county department and campus police talked with officials from Coastal Georgia Comprehensive Academy about the various ways that autism could manifest during interactions with police officers. Coastal Georgia Comprehensive Academy is a special education school whose focus is to educate students with severe emotional/behavioral disorders, as well as students with moderate to severe autism.

"We are very excited to kick off this special project of autism awareness for law enforcement," said Principal Steve Derr. "If we can do anything to help officers understand the small signs and characteristics of autism it will be a good thing for everyone."

And after a brief lecture, officers put the principles into practice. Officers went around to classrooms speaking with children.

Hadley said there is a plan in place to continue education for officers.

"This is just the beginning," he said.

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(c)2018 Savannah Morning News (Savannah, Ga.)

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