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House Votes To Expand Autism Awareness Training For Law Enforcement

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The Florida House has voted to expand autism awareness training for law enforcement. Support for the issue amped up this session after a North Miami officer shot at an autistic man he thought was dangerous.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit MGN Online
The Florida Channel

People on the autism spectrum handle stress in many different ways. Law enforcement, and the general public, can misconstrue some of those coping mechanisms as threatening. Katherine Zenko heads the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at Florida State University, also called CARD.

“Sometimes they pace. Which can look suspicious. Sometimes there’s some hand flapping that may go along with it,” Zenko said. “Or they may be talking with themselves, especially if they’re anxious. Sometimes they go into a repetitive loop of what they’re saying. And that can look as if perhaps the individual has some mental health issues. Or may just seem threatening to an officer.”

Currently, recruits get basic autism training in order to be certified. But now lawmakers have voted to make in-depth training a part of mandatory continuing employment classes. Hollywood Democratic Representative Evan Jenne is sponsoring the bill.

“Approximately one in sixty-eight children have been identified as falling into the autism spectrum disorder. Individuals are estimated to have up to seven times more contact with law enforce agencies than other individuals,” Jenne said.

His bill failed last session, but a run-in with police helped drive the issue this year. An officer in North Miami got a report of a man behaving erratically, possibly with a weapon. Not knowing the man was autistic, the officer opened fire, accidentally shooting the man’s caretaker. Lobbyist Susan Goldstein’s daughter has autism, and she says police training would’ve prevented the shooting.

“Just the fact that the police would know what the characteristics of autism, and the symptoms, the rocking, the hand flapping...” she trailed off.

Margie Garlin works with the CARD center in Gainesville, and her son Brian is on the spectrum. Even with her professional and personal experience, she says police interactions are on her mind.

“That’s a reality that parents live with every day. Even me. Even with Brian.” Garlin said.

A year ago they began training local law enforcement. Just weeks after their session, officers responded to an autistic man in distress.

“And the police did a fabulous job. It was so funny because they learned from our little trainings, and we had just done it. Probably a month before that. And they learned and they immediately called our office,” Garlin said.

She says both her son and the officers are learning important lessons. Many people on the spectrum are non-verbal. And some carry cards in their wallets to communicate their diagnosis and abilities. But officers have told Garlin even that can be threatening.

“So I was talking to them about those cards, and all of a sudden three of the cops, police officers are raising their hands. And they’re like, don’t ever tell them to pull their card out when a police officer…don’t pull anything out…nothing,” Garlin said.

She says realizations like that are why more training and positive interactions are needed. The full House voted the bill forward unanimously. It now heads to the Senate.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.