The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office has launched a new initiative to help deputies know beforehand when they are likely to come into contact with an autistic person.
The ECSO is now providing adhesive decals that read “occupant with autism” that residents can stick on their homes and vehicles if they have autism or live with someone who does.
“We wanted to be able to provide the best service to every citizen and sometimes we have interactions with people with special needs,” said Escambia County Sheriff Chip Simmons.
The stickers are a safety measure that alert deputies and first responders that they are about to engage in a situation where there is high chance a person with autism will be present.
“It will signify to a deputy and all first responders that someone who is either in that vehicle or in that home maybe has autism and that they should know that they will need to rely on their training for how to deal with that situation that includes a person with autism,” Simmons said.
Anyone who wants one or more of the new stickers can have one sent to them by filling out a form at escambiaso.com/autism-decal. The stickers, which are free of charge, are being funding with Law Enforcement Trust Fund dollars.
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Mary McClellan, executive director of Autism Pensacola, called the new initiative a “great idea.”
“Any time that there is greater education about autism and awareness of autism brought to the community, it is a good thing,” said McClellan, whose organization is partnering with the ECSO to cross-promote the initiative and offer training for new deputies.
Every new deputy at the ECSO must undergo training on how to best interact with people who have special needs such as autism.
“We will collaboratively try to educate the force about autism and what to look for and what not to mistake something for,” McClellan said.
McClellan said there are various behaviors that people with autism may show that could be mistaken for a person not following a deputies’ commands.
“Some people may be nonverbal. They may not talk or have trouble forming words and that could be mistaken for just refusing to give information, not being able to tell the officer their name, and things like that,” McClellan said.
Another common behavior is called eloping, which can refer to wandering or running away from a situation.
“They run off,” McClellan said. “But they are not running away from law enforcement; they are just running away.”
Often, autistic people engage in eloping behaviors when they become over stimulated.
“For someone like me who is neurotypical — somebody who does not have autism — sirens and flashing lights gets me going,” McClellan said. “It gets my anxiety up. So you can imagine that for someone who has sensory issues that becomes overwhelming. It’s called sensory overload.”
That’s a big part of why having the knowledge that someone has autism helps law enforcement officers successfully navigate encounters.
“I think knowing that someone may have autism will hopefully help us to better understand their reactions to us and to the situation itself,” Simmons said.
Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8680.