A Columbus, Ohio, police officer who is the father of an autistic child is using his experience as a dad to develop a new training program that teaches officers how to interact with individuals with autism.
Officer David Freetage, a 20-year veteran of the Columbus Division of Police, created the program to help officers better understand and engage with individuals on the autism spectrum. He believes it will improve interactions between police and those with autism in the community.
The motivation for the program came from his personal experience as a father. His son, Tyler, was first diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, and even though he is now 15 years old, he remains nonverbal.
“We have minimal sign language communication. He also uses an electronic communication device to talk to us,” Freetage told WCMH News. “He’s a very loving, sweet kid. He’ll come up and give you hugs and he’s very friendly. He has certain people he really attaches to.”
The officer saw there was a lack of autism training at the department and across the board. “It’s something that we didn’t really have at the Columbus Division of Police, and police in general doesn’t really have this type of training,” he said.
After talking to teachers and parents at his son’s school, Freetage came up with the idea for the program.
“I started in my own head, was the first place,” Freetage recalled. “I thought back to when I was a new parent — what I wanted to know, what I didn’t know.”
Freetage’s program focuses on educating officers on the signs and characteristics of autism, such as “stimming,” which is a self-calming technique involving repetitive movements or noises used by some individuals on the spectrum.
“It’s things that folks on the spectrum will do just to calm themselves,” Freetage explained. “But it’s also things that officers who are responding, may not know that.”
He also emphasizes the importance of communication.
“Talk to whoever is there. Talk to the parents, talk to the caretaker, if they’re available,” Freetage said. “Try to reach out to someone who is familiar with them or the situation.”
Freetage has already taught more than 30 classes, educating every officer on the force as well as each incoming recruit. The feedback he has received has been positive, with participants stating that it has helped them better understand and handle situations involving individuals on the spectrum.
Freetage believes that his program not only promotes humanity but also ensures safety for the community and all parties involved in these types of calls. He encourages his fellow officers to take their time when responding to calls involving individuals on the spectrum and to not react too suddenly, as those with autism tend to panic during encounters with police.
“Even though folks on the spectrum may not be able to communicate with you, or communicate differently than you and I, they still often can understand, and they feel, and they know what you’re saying,” Freetage said.