Law enforcement agencies in South Carolina are aiming to improve their response to crisis situations involving individuals with autism in a recent training session hosted by the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (DDSN).
The training session, organized in partnership with the state chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, allows officers to gain valuable insights into autism characteristics, best communication practices and available resources for families.
Stephanie Turner, director of the Autism Division at DDSN, explained the importance of providing law enforcement with the knowledge needed to effectively handle encounters with individuals on the autism spectrum.
“It’s a real-world application, it gives them real steps they can use the next day they respond to a situation,” Turner said. “About 30 to 50% of our folks on the autism spectrum don’t speak but communicate in other ways. I think it’s very important that we arm our law enforcement with that knowledge,” she continued.
Turner also said the training focuses on teaching officers how to create a calm environment when interacting with those on the spectrum.
To ensure officers remember the essential steps when encountering someone with autism in crisis, Turner introduced the acronym S.M.I.P.
Safety questions: Ask the person’s name or where they live and then rephrase one question to ensure better comprehension.
Movement-based instructions: Use clear and straightforward instructions such as “come here” or “sit down.”
Imitation instruction: Demonstrate actions and encourage the individual to follow.
Physical guidance: Employ gentle physical guidance if necessary.
Participants in the training expressed their appreciation for the newfound knowledge and resources.
“We have fantastic resources, things I didn’t know were available, and it’s awesome. We need more training classes like these, across the board, for officers,” said Joshua Blair, a patrolman with the Surfside Beach Police Department.
Blair said the training offered alternative strategies for dealing with those with autism.
“Now, this opens up your eyes to the fact that that’s not always the case, we don’t need to be so quick about going into being force driven. Take the time, learn, talk with, communicate with,” Blair said.
DK Keasler-Bruce, a sergeant for North Greenville University, acknowledged that dealing with autism during law enforcement encounters can be challenging, making the training invaluable for officers.
“It’s educational, I know how to deal with autism a little bit, but as far as the law enforcement side of it, it can get a little tricky,” Keasler-Bruce said.
The goal of this specialized training is to help officers avoid misinterpreting autistic behaviors, which could lead to unnecessary use of force. Without proper training, an individual’s lack of response might be mistakenly perceived as non-compliance.
Shawn Keith, the executive director of Autism Society in South Carolina, said the training will give all first responders tools to handle individuals with autism and disabilities effectively.
“I believe that all law enforcement agencies and even all first responders should have some type of first responder training,” Keith said. “It relates not only to people with autism but people with disabilities in general.”
In recognition of the officers’ commitment to learning how to handle autism-related crises, participants received a puzzle piece pin to wear on their uniform. The pin serves as a visible indicator for citizens that the officer has undergone autism crisis intervention training, potentially reassuring loved ones during crisis situations.
William Miller, a corporal for the training division at Columbia Police Department, said the training was critical.
“If we ask the right questions if we are as understanding as we can be, try to reach in as far as we can, we’ll find out a lot more,” he said.