Nearly 50 law enforcement professionals including officers, school resource officers and administrators gathered in Fort Worth this week for training on how better work with people on the autism spectrum in the community.
The training was hosted by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s office and taught by Autism Safety 101 from Florida.
“My goal is to familiarize Texas law enforcement with autism,” instructor Bart Barta said. “How people with autism react and respond.”
Barta is familiar with both sides of the lesson. Not only is his 14-year-old son on the autism spectrum, he is also a former member of the law enforcement community.
“I believe if they understand these challenges, it’s going to help these contacts with persons who have autism – be it victims, be it suspects or witnesses,” Barta said.
Gary Moore is one of the school resource officers (SRO) who attended the training. He has been the SRO at Colleyville Heritage High School for more than 20 years.
“I generally eat lunch with the special needs students every day,” Moore said.
At the beginning of the school year, many parents of students on the autism spectrum have back to school plans that include introducing their student to teachers and administrators. They are urged to include the SRO in the introductions to foster a relationship between the officer and the student.
“So the student is familiar and know that that officer is a person to go to if they need help and a person not to be afraid and so that officer is aware of that person’s disability,” Moore said.
Parents can also create a “wallet card” or information handout for teachers and officers with information about the student.
“What might be some triggers that help the officer deal with them in a way that makes that a successful interaction and tells them things that might set them off as well,” Colleyville Police Chief Michael Miller said.
“It’s really important that the school resource officer know these children and know the unique challenges that particular child faces,” Barta said.
Parents are encouraged to ask their school about drills and practice for emergencies; especially for children on the spectrum. They can sometimes have difficulty with the added excitement of an emergency situation and repeated drills could help not only the student, but also their interaction with SROs who are trying to get them to safety.
“Many of these children will be able to transition and comply and understand what is expected of them during one of these crisis situations, but you can’t do it on the fly,” Barta said. “You have to put the training on the front end and rehearse this repeatedly with the students and the staff.”