Autism and police cars in the driveway

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a police car pull into my driveway. Matthew was 13 years old, and had wandered from home to a bike trail down the street. Passersby noticed him cutting a large branch with a small but threatening pruning saw and called the police. Luckily, the officer that showed up at the scene was one who had given a talk at Matthew’s special class just weeks before, so he knew what he was dealing with.


But as Matthew got older, he got bigger and more aggressive, and could be really scary. Visits from the police became more frequent. One day when he was 15, a minor disagreement after school escalated into a full blown meltdown, and Matthew day he took off on his brother’s skateboard in a rage. I jumped in my car to search for him and found him in the parking lot of our neighborhood school surrounded by three police cars; lights blazing. It was a good thing that I got there when I did. These officers did not know Matthew and they didn’t understand his behavior and I was too much of a wreck to explain it rationally.

The next day, I put together a flyer with Matthew’s picture that explained autism, how it affected Matthew in particular, and circulated it around my neighborhood. I dropped off a stack at the police station, too, and while I thought the flyer was informative, it came across to many as a warning: “In case you see this boy flipping out, be careful!”

I did a little research and found out about Dennis Debbaudt, a professional investigator and law enforcement trainer who was the first to address the interactions between law enforcement and people with autism in his 1994 report Avoiding Unfortunate Situations.

He was also the father of a young man who has autism. If anyone got it, it was Dennis.

Today, Dennis provides autism training and resources for law enforcement, emergency first responders, parents, educators, care providers, and the autism community. His training video, Autism & Law Enforcement Roll Call Briefing is in use by the Department of Homeland Security and hundreds of police agencies throughout the country. The video provides a quick and engaging education in autism that helps increase safety for both officers and individuals with autism.

Dennis has downloadable resources and forms for parents and professionals on his website. My personal favorite is the Autism Emergency Contact Form. Many law enforcement, fire rescue, and emergency 911 call centers are willing and able to record and red flag information from this form into their data base. When a call comes from families that participate in the red flag program, 911 operators can alert the first responder before they arrive with key information that can improve the response.

By the way, Dennis is an engaging speaker with a good sense of humor and is such a nice guy.

Check out his website Autism Risk Management here.


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