HISTORIC TRIANGLE — For many families with children on the Autism Spectrum, the risk of their loved one wandering away from a safe setting is a daily worry.
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) see the world differently than most. They often face social challenges and cannot always communicate the same as others.
It’s common for children with ASD to wander or run away from a parent or caregiver. This is called “elopement,” and it can be as stressful and traumatic for a parent as it sounds.
While some families may have already experienced this struggle, the Virginia State Police and local police departments have resources available for families in the ASD community.
They are also trained to know how to safely work with those with ASD without resorting to violence.
All Virginia State Police (VSP) troopers are crisis-management trained, VSP spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Anaya said.
The troopers have been taught how to handle missing children with Autism, as well as various mental disorders, patients with Alzheimer’s, and mental illness. They also receive disability training.
The officers also receive ongoing training with Crisis Intervention Team Programs, which specialize in police curriculum that aims to reduce risk of serious injury or death during an emergency interaction with individuals with mental illnesses and developmental or behavioral disabilities.
The James City County Police Department (JCCPD) offers a variety of services for the special needs community.
The department offers Autism Awareness magnets and stickers for county residences and vehicles.
The idea of this is so that public safety personnel are alerted that they may need to communicate differently with individuals during emergency situations.
They also offer the Heads Up Program, which allows residents to notify JCCPD’s Emergency Communications Center of any pre-existing conditions for first responders’ awareness.
Another of their free services is the Project Lifesaver program, a radio transmitter for those with Alzheimer’s and Related Mental Disorders (ARMD), behavioral and developmental disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder and other conditions that are at high risk of wandering or prone to life-threatening behavior.
This program offers a tracking bracelet which helps local emergency agencies locate a person if they wander.
Officers are trained in recognizing and responding to people with developmental disabilities, suffering from alcohol, drug intoxication, and mental crisis, JCCPD spokeswoman Stephanie Williams-Ortery said.
They are trained in recognizing the differences between these issues, as well as de-escalation techniques in various scenarios.
“This training is helpful to officers in identifying possible reasons why an individual may not be complying with officers requests/commands,” Williams-Ortery said. “The ability to recognize this would then afford the officer the opportunity to use other resources in order to seek safe resolution.”
The Williamsburg Police Department (WPD) also offers Project Lifesaver. The program is free and operates solely on donations from the public.
Officer Aundrea Holiday headed the department’s efforts to bring these resources to the community.
“Four of my current clients are on the Spectrum,” she said. “I have personally enjoyed getting to know each of them over the last five years that I have managed the program.”
Similar to JCCPD, the department also gives out Autism Awareness stickers for free.
The department asks residents to place the sticker in the back left window of their vehicle or at their homes so first responders who come in contact with them will know there may be someone inside who might not respond to verbal commands.
“We are always looking for ways to engage our community,” Holiday said.
The officers also receive ongoing Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, which includes a section on how to respond to those with ASD.
Additionally, they do “Training Bulletins,” which address their policy on how officers are to respond to calls and interactions involving individuals with disabilities, whether they are complainants, victims, witnesses, arrestees or bystanders.
The York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office (YPSO) deputies are trained to look for a Project Lifesaver magnet or sticker on the back of their cars or homes that indicates they have Autism or other disabilities.
“They’re also trained in how flashing lights can bother some people with Autism and that there’s a very large scale of people who are non-verbal to very high-functioning,” YPSO spokeswoman Shelley Ward said.
Ward said that while they have mainly dealt with young children through Project Lifesaver, they have responded to all ages.
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