February 17, 2017 11:46AM
By Mike Savino,
When Cheshire police received a call from a woman in September that a person was outside her home holding an ax, they were immediately preparing for what they expected to be a stressful situation.
Officers quickly determined that the ax was just a replica and that the person, who was not communicating verbally, was autistic, allowing them to change their response accordingly. Cheshire Officer Jeffrey Falk said the reaction could have been much worse if he and other responding officers weren’t trained on how to identify someone with an autistic spectrum disorder.
“You’re facing a potential deadly force situation if you don’t know and he’s keeping (the ax) contained and he comes charging at you,” Falk said about what could have happened in the situation without proper training.
In hopes of avoiding that outcome, Reps. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, and Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, have proposed legislation aimed at creating a uniform training program for all police when responding to calls involving wandering autistic children.
The bill, which had a public hearing Thursday, is in response to how Cheshire police handled an incident involving Logan Gibbons, 15, who ran away from his Southington home in early September and was later found in Cheshire.
Linehan said the bill would establish a program that would help police officers identify when someone has an autistic spectrum disorder, as well as how to respond appropriately.
People with autism can have a range of reactions in social situations, including an inability to communicate verbally, avoiding eye contact, or physical reactions like clapping hands. Stephanie Gibbons, Logan’s mother, said some can charge at people, but this is done out of fear and not out of a desire to injure others.
She said the program is needed “so that first responders don’t look at these kids as like a threat, because they’re obviously not.”
“It’s just — they’re scared of anything, these kids,” Stephanie Gibbons said Thursday.
In addition to training for police, Linehan said she wants towns to keep a registry of children with autism spectrum disorders or other intellectual and developmental disabilities, allowing police to easily identify them when they run away.
Falk said Cheshire police have a registry compiled with information volunteered by parents, including a child’s interests, which police can use to develop a rapport.
The bill received support Thursday from some parents of autistic children and from the Police Officers Association of Connecticut, which represents 1,200 officers in 22 municipalities.
The association said in brief written testimony that its members “recognize that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often face significant challenges in social and community settings.”
Logan’s parents said he occasionally runs from home as a way to handle his emotions, and a clinical psychologist at Yale University said nearly 50 percent of autistic children wander from home. Many autistic children are also drawn to water.
Abercrombie said she suspects many police departments around the state already do some form of training, but the bill would result in a “more formalized” process.
“I think it’s a safety issue for both the families, but also the police officers to understand the disability that they’re dealing with,” she said.
While the disappearance of any child can be frightening, Stephanie Gibbons said the fear is greater when the incident involves an autistic child because of the uncertainty about how the child and strangers will interact.
“It’s sad, it’s horrible, because you don’t want it to end up in death,” Gibbons said.
Linehan, who said she joined in the search for Logan after learning of his disappearance in September, agreed.
“As a parent, as someone who loves someone on the (autism) spectrum... it’s terrifying, and I want to save kids, and I want to save parents from going through that as well,” she said.