WESTERVILLE, OH (WCMH) – This fall, law enforcement officials in central Ohio are learning how to recognize and better respond to people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Westerville Assistant Police Chief Paul Scowden said officers typically have a small amount of training when it comes to interacting with people who have autism, but nothing this in-depth.
“This is just one more tool for officers to use,” he said.
Scowden said his 23-year-old son, Tyler, has autism.
“I was always worried what would happen if he was stopped by a police officer,” he said.
Carrie Gutowski, associate attorney at Isaac Wiles Burkholder & Teetor LLC, has a 4-year-old son who is also on the autism spectrum. Gutowski and Scowden believe their training will help keep officers safe and protect their children and others who may have ASD. Together, it took them nine months to put together the curriculum for the training.
“This, to me, is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Gutowski. “He’ll be driving in 10 years and I don’t want him to run into the same problems that Chris Page had.”
NBC4 first told you about Chris Page last fall, who was arrested on a drunk driving charge. Tests revealed Chris was sober but failed a field sobriety test because of his disability.
Since then, House Bill 115 was introduced at the Ohio Statehouse. If it becomes law, it would allow people with communication disabilities to voluntarily put their name on a registry. It’s visible only to officers in case of a traffic stop. Law enforcement has supported the measure. Gutowski said all that needs to be added to the bill is a training component for officers.
“Chris Page was doing something perfectly legal and yet he was arrested for his disability,” she said. “At the same time, I knew the officers did absolutely everything right, so there was just a huge need for it to be done.”
Scowden said they want officers to learn how to communicate with people who have autism, as well as some triggers like sirens and flashing lights.
“What we’re trying to do is lessen that and to teach the officers, ‘Hey, this may not bother you, but to them, they are so visual that there brain’s exploding.’ They can’t concentrate,” he said.
“They get a suspicious person call. They’ll be wondering if the person is on drugs. Is the person breaking an entry? Add to your list, does the person have autism?” said Gutowski.
Scowden said a couple hundred officers will go through training this fall. They plan to continue teaching it next year and hope to take it across the state and eventually nationally.