COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Police officers face a variety of challenges when they’re sent out on a call, but one officer with the Columbus Division of Police is using his experiences as a father, to reduce those challenges for community members that fall on the Autism spectrum.
“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,” admits Officer David Freetage, a 20-year veteran of the force. It’s a type of training that Freetage learned first-hand, and something that he always thought the division needed.
“I myself have a 15-year-old, non-verbal autistic son,” Freetage describes. After talking to teachers and parents at his son’s school, Freetage knew the training was something that he needed to develop. “I started in my own head, was the first place,” reflects Freetage. “I thought back to when I was a new parent — what I wanted to know, what I didn’t know.”
Freetage’s son Tyler was first diagnosed with autism at the age of 2. Looking back, he says the scariest part was not knowing what to expect. “Will he eventually be able to walk?” Freetage questioned. “Will he become verbal? All of this was something, we had no clue.”
Tyler started walking at the age of four. Though 13 years since being diagnosed, he remains non-verbal. “We have minimal sign language communication. He also uses an electronic communication device to talk to us,” Freetage describes Tyler. “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.”
But Tyler struggles with everyday life. And now, it’s Freetage’s mission to help fellow officers identify those like Tyler when out on a call. “When the kids on the spectrum are little, it’s an acceptance, you know? “As they get older, it’s seen more as aggression from police,” Freetage says of his experience.
The division sent Freetage to outside training classes. Combined with his own research, he and his partner created the program. “A large part of my class is signs and characteristics,” Freetage lays out. One of those signs is ‘stemming.’ Like Tyler, who uses and egg-shaped toy when he’s feeling anxious.
“It’s things that folks on the spectrum will do just to calm themselves,” explains Freetage. “But it’s also things that officers who are responding, may not know that.” Another key focus of Freetage’s program is communication. “Talk to whoever is there. Talk to the parents, talk to the caretaker, if they’re available,” Freetage urges. “Try to reach out to someone who is familiar with them or the situation.”
Freetage has taught more than 30 classes — educating every officer on the force, and every incoming class of recruits. He’s already seeing the benefits. “We had officers coming across people on the spectrum that said, ‘Man, your class helped me so much. Because look at this video. Did I do this right?'” he recalls.
For Freetage, his program isn’t only delivering a message of humanity, but one of safety for the community, and all parties involved in these types of calls. His biggest message to his fellow officers: to not react too quickly and to slow time down.
“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,” says Freetage.