CBC News reported:
Ottawa is set to become just the second Canadian municipality to create an
autism registry, a tool that police hope will help first-responders locate
and assist autistic children and adults.
The registry, to be launched Thursday on World Autism Awareness Day, will
allow parents to enter the name, address and a photo of their autistic
child, as well any other information that would be useful for fire, police
and medical personnel.
Ottawa Police Services are running the registry with help from Autism
Ontario and local school boards.
Miramichi, N.B., launched an autism registry in December last year, becoming
the first Canadian municipality to do so.
Ottawa Sgt. Norm Sandre says the new registry will include basic personal
information as well as potential triggers that might set off a normally
Ottawa police say more information would not be available until Thursday's
launch, but the registry is believed to be for people of all ages, just as
Miramichi's registry is.
Autism may affect interaction
Autism is a common neurological disorder that affects the way the brain
functions and results in difficulties with communication and social
interaction. People with the disorder also exhibit unusual patterns of
behaviour, activities and interests.
An estimated 190,000 Canadian children have the disorder. The most recent
studies suggest the rate of autism has increased to 60 cases per 100,000
people, from 40 cases.
Marie Lemaire says she plans to register her 12-year-old son, Charles, when
the database is available.
She says he got into a fight at a schoolyard last year and police were
called in, but didn't press charges once they assessed the situation. She
worries that her son, who has worked to get better at social interaction
since being diagnosed, may not be as lucky if another incident occurs.
"Sometimes autistics don't like to look at you in the eyes," says Lemaire.
"So imagine you're a police officer and you say, 'At least look at me in the
eye,' and the boy doesn't do that?"
With files from Rebecca Zandbergen
In a second related story, The Gazette, the magazine of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, has the following story about autism and policing:
Tips for dealing with persons who have autism
by Ellen Gervais National Crime Prevention Services, RCMP
Autism is a neurological disorder that manifests as a developmental disability. It usually appears within the first three years of life and affects areas of the brain associated with social interaction and communication skills.
Among the five pervasive developmental disorders, autism is the most common, affecting about 20 in 10,000 Canadians. Current data suggests that autism is four times more likely in men than in women. The disorder lasts a lifetime and there is no known cure.
When responding to a call for service involving an autistic person, it is helpful for police officers to have an understanding of the disorder. With knowledge and training, police officers will be better equipped to approach or apprehend individuals affected by autism while ensuring their own safety and the safety of the public.
Recognizing the signs
Autism is a broad spectrum disorder, meaning that an afflicted person may possess a low, medium or high level of functioning based on communication skills, learning abilities and personal independence. Recognizing the signs of autism can help police officers more effectively deal with an afflicted individual. The signs include the following:
- self-stimulation (rocking back and forth, arm flailing)
- inability to process information
- lack of eye contact
- laughing at inappropriate times
- inability to answer simple questions (may be perceived as non-compliant)
- preoccupation with shiny items such as jewelry or an officer’s badge
- argumentative, inattentive or insubordinate
- inability to grasp the intended meaning of messages
- flicking wrists in a constant motion
- twirling objects
- exhibiting echolalia (repeating your words verbatim or mimicking your actions)
What to do
When approaching an individual who you believe may have autism, try to talk to them in a calm, soothing manner using direct, short phrases. Simply asking the person if they have autism may result in a confirmation. Do not raise your voice or be confrontational with the individual, as this may exacerbate their anxiety and result in inconsolable yelling, physicality or self-injury. Avoid direct eye contact.
Be conscious of personal space. When persons with autism perceive an invasion of their personal space, they can quickly turn violent. This not only puts them at risk of hurting themselves, but also increases the risk to the officer’s physical safety.
When approaching an individual who you believe may have autism, try to talk to them in a calm, soothing manner using direct, short phrases.
Autistic individuals can demonstrate an unusually strong attachment to inanimate objects such as car antennas, pieces of paper or beads. To suddenly remove these objects from their possession can provoke a high level of anxiety and result in threatening physical reactions or self-injury. Returning the confiscated item can have a calming effect, allowing you to question the person or resolve the problem.
Individuals with autism may exhibit inappropriate behaviours such as grabbing for your shiny badge or pen, talking to themselves but not responding to you, appearing as if deaf, covering their ears and looking away, or speaking too loudly or too softly. Avoid touching autistic persons if safety is not at risk and don’t stand too closely behind them as they may suddenly lurch backward.
Be aware that sirens and lights can cause sensory overload in a person with autism, which can lead to extreme anxiety, physical rebellion or non-compliance. Some autistic individuals are hypersensitive. Loud sounds or unusual stimuli can cause them pain and anxiety.
Individuals with autism may exhibit inappropriate behaviours such as grabbing for your shiny badge or pen, talking to themselves but not responding to you, appearing as if deaf, covering their ears and looking away.
Officers accompanied by a police dog should be aware that a dog’s bark or mere presence may cause anxiety in someone with autism, making it more difficult to approach or question the person.
There will be times when a police officer is unable to practise the approaches mentioned above, but being armed with knowledge increases the chance of a more successful intervention.
There will also be instances when restraining an autistic person is necessary. People with autism are known to have under-developed trunk muscles (hypotonia), which can compromise their breathing. As soon as safety allows, turn the person on their side to facilitate normal breathing. Many individuals afflicted with autism also suffer from cardiac conditions, asthma and seizures.
Finally, people with autism lack a fear of danger and may exhibit an insensitivity to or a high tolerance for pain.
Autistic people have a tendency to slip away from their caretakers silently and undetected. When they do, they are at great risk of wandering into traffic or other dangerous areas.
Many individuals with autism have a fascination with water — drowning is the leading cause of death among people with this disorder. When searching for a missing person who is known to have autism, check local water sources.
If they wander off, autistic individuals may actually hide from their rescuers, respond with aggression or even try to re-enter a burning building.
When approaching someone who you suspect may have autism, simply ask them if they have autism or if they carry identification. Many autistic persons carry personal information in the form of a card or a velcro enclosure with their name and address written on it. They may also carry the Autism Emergency Contact Form or wear something with the word “autism” written on it. Check for shoe tags, jewelry, bumper stickers or tags hanging from zippers or belt loops that may reveal a person has autism.
When interviewing or detaining persons with autism, expect that the interview process will take longer than usual. Autistic people may seem evasive or vague in their responses when questioned.
There are new, effective, yet non-invasive methods of tracking a family member who has autism. These new technologies should be considered if the individual is prone to wandering. Police officers may be spared considerable time and resources, and the family much concern, if an individual is carrying or wearing one of these useful devices.
When interviewing or detaining persons with autism, expect that the interview process will take longer than usual and be aware of the unusual behaviours already mentioned.
Autistic people may not show any signs of remorse or may seem evasive or vague in their responses when questioned. They may not have the capacity to understand their rights, and it is beneficial to ask them questions that elicit a “yes” or “no” response. When possible, consider using an autism specialist during the interview process, or ask for permission to videotape the interview.
Ensure that your initial report mentions that the detained person has autism, and alert jail authorities that the person will require additional supervision. It is also in the best interest of everyone involved that a medical evaluation be conducted.
Law enforcement activities involve many roles, responsibilities and risks. Raising one’s awareness of disorders such as autism can be worth its weight in gold in terms of recognition, prevention and resolution. You can practise the best possible strategies by arming yourself with knowledge about autism and other autism spectrum disorders.
References and resources
- Autism Society of Canada
- Dennis Debbaudt’s Autism Risk & Safety Management Information and resources for law enforcement, first responders, parents, educators and care providers
- Autism Canada Foundation