The 20-plus members of one of the Grand Prairie Police Department's academy classes are among the very first law enforcement officers in all of North Texas to undergo autism awareness training.
The training is designed to make police officers much more familiar with the unique challenges for and needs of people affected by autism.
"If you don’t understand individuals on the spectrum, particularly how they communicate, maybe how they behave, and some of the other challenges they face in life, you might misinterpret their behavior or their actions," said instructor Bart Barta, a retired police commander from Florida who is also the father of a teenager with autism.
Eye contact was among the examples of behavior that could be misinterpreted by someone with autism, Barta highlighted. Specifically, people with autism rarely make direct eye contact for any extended period of time — and the amount of time it might take a person with autism to respond to a direct command from an officer.
"If you were not sure what autism looks like you might take one response, you may think this person is under the influence of some type of controlled substance, or maybe it’s a mental health issue, and it’s neither. It’s simply that this person has a disability called autism and it’s creating some challenges for them," Barta explained.
There have been multiple documented incidents involving negative interactions between law enforcement and a person with autism, including a situation in Arizona where an officer suspected a teenage boy with autism was under the influence of drugs and forced the boy to the ground, injuring him. That teen’s family requested an apology, and when they claim one never came they filed a $5 million lawsuit against the department.
Courtney Runnels is the mental health coordinator for the Grand Prairie Police Department. She attended a similar training for officers, hosted by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office, back in the summer and knew her department’s officers would benefit.
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"This is absolutely going to come up in their careers," Runnels said about the potential for an interaction with a person on the autism spectrum. "The more training we have, the more ability we have to de-escalate in an appropriate way or to respond in maybe a better way than we would before."