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Bob Buckhorn Announces New Autism Friendly Program For First Responders

Tampa Police Department put autism awareness stickers on some of their patrol cars to kick off the new "Help Us, Help You" program.
Bethany Hanson
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Police Chief Brian Dugan announced plans Thursday to commemorate Autism Awareness Month. Their new program, "Help Us, Help You" is an online special needs registry for first responders in the city of Tampa.

Buckhorn announced in his State of the City address last year that he wants to make Tampa one of the first cities in America to be designated as autism friendly. This registry is the next step in his initiative.

“(I want to) make sure that these young people could have an experience that mirrored the experience that my two kids who aren’t on the (autism) spectrum were able to enjoy growing up,” Buckhorn said during a press conference.

As part of the initiative, city employees were first trained and educated last year about autism and other disabilities. This training is where Dugan started thinking about what would make the interaction and subsequent reaction much better, sparking the Help Us, Help You program.

“It made me as the chief of police start thinking about what information would first responders like to know when we come to your house,” he said.

The registry is a completely voluntary program and is customizable, to respond to different situations. It’s not only available to those on the autism spectrum, but to anyone with special needs or disabilities.

It can be very detailed, with the option to include pictures of the child or medications that they take, and families can choose to provide as much information as they’re comfortable with. This information will be stored in a database that only police officers and rescue personnel can access.

“If (first responders) approach an individual who they know has special needs, they are prepared to react appropriately,” said Buckhorn, who said he wants to avoid potentially precarious situations. “As a result, we will have a better, safer community.”

Holly Marino has a 13-year-old daughter on the spectrum. She said filling out the registry has already given her peace of mind.

“The registry has given me the opportunity to provide information that would be crucial in making sure that nothing unforeseen or anything bad would happen as a result of some of her behaviors,” she said.

Marino’s daughter has a difficult time communicating verbally, but now first responders know that she’s able to read and write if they ever need to assist her. 

“It will help reduce anxiety and help make sure that they can communicate with her and find out what it is that’s happening with her at that given moment,” she said.

To kick off the program, Tampa Police have put autism awareness stickers on some of their patrol cars and Buckhorn’s car. Dugan says it’s the best way to raise awareness, people notice police cars and will now notice the stickers.

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Bethany Hanson is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news reporter for spring 2018.