Putting together the puzzle: Officers receive training on autism
by Jessica Loeding
Jul 08, 2012 | 3363 views | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Heather Hackett-Hayes, left, and Sandi Marcus train law enforcement personnel Friday at the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office on how to approach people affected by autism. Hayes is a behavior analyst and Marcus has two grandchildren diagnosed with autism and is a community activist for helping people understand autism.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
Heather Hackett-Hayes, left, and Sandi Marcus train law enforcement personnel Friday at the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office on how to approach people affected by autism. Hayes is a behavior analyst and Marcus has two grandchildren diagnosed with autism and is a community activist for helping people understand autism. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Bartow County Sheriff's Office Deputy Eddie Leon talks about his experience answering a call involving someone diagnosed with autism.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
Bartow County Sheriff's Office Deputy Eddie Leon talks about his experience answering a call involving someone diagnosed with autism. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
slideshow
*Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series on law enforcement training and education.

Hill Smith stands shyly in front of the room, looking every bit the 13-year-old with his cap pulled low -- very little about Hill gives away that he is affected by autism.

Hill and his mother, Brenda Smith, spoke Friday morning during "Law Enforcement: Your Piece to the Autism Puzzle," a training class for representatives of the Bartow County Sheriff's Office on dealing with those affected by autism.

Brenda Smith commended the group on providing education to employees about autism spectrum disorders.

"I think the biggest concern with having a child with autism is the wandering part. They don't know they're lost. In their mind, they're not lost but you are because you can't find them," Smith said, adding that Hill has made tremendous progress after intensive therapy.

"The other thing I would mention to you is that he thinks of you as his equal. So, that's an issue we deal with, too. Like, he thinks he's an adult sometimes and that he can communicate with me like an adult, so he's not intimidated by you even if you have on a uniform," she said.

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control.

For Sandi Marcus, grandmother of autistic 9-year-old twins, the rise in those diagnosed with autism means more and more emergency personnel and law enforcement will encounter those affected.

"Autism, according to the CDC, now affects one in 88 children and one in 54 boys. That translates to we have 2 million children now in America affected by autism. That's roughly a 17 percent increase yearly, which means, translated to you, that you are seven times more likely this year than you were last year to respond to a call where a child is affected by autism," Marcus said.

"I think the importance in getting this training out to you today is that our system, the infrastructure of our society, will soon be hit with a tidal wave of these children becoming adults. And, once they become adults, for whatever reason -- there's some controversy there, if it's hormonal or what happens -- they become very aggressive," Marcus said.

Like Smith, Marcus said elopement, or wandering off, is a major concern for the autism community and is the majority of calls law enforcement sees. Domestic situations follow close behind.

Marcus said advocates are working to establish an alert specific to autism, which will work to inform authorities when a child with autism goes missing.

Asking for help from authorities is something Marcus said many parents and families are hesitant to do.

"There is a reluctancy within the autism community to contact you guys for help, and this is another part, I think, is vital to bridge this gap," she said. "They have a fear -- and it's a very real fear -- that they will see their child taken away in handcuffs or placed in an environment that the parent might not choose but it would be out of their hands at that point.

"Being the parent of a child affected by autism in extremely stressful, you are on guard 24/7, 365 days a year because autism never sleeps."

Discussions about how to close the gap between authorities and families included tips for both sides.

Behavior analyst Heather Hackett-Hayes presented ideas for officers when responding to a call involving an autistic person, including turning off sirens prior to arriving.

She said a stressful situation can make symptoms worse in those affected by autism.

"Patience is definitely key," Hackett-Hayes said. "It's not just about educating you guys about autism awareness it's about telling families and parents the more you tell other people the easier these type situations are going to go."

And every situation is different.

"Autism affects everybody differently. If you know one child with autism, you know one child with autism," Marcus said.

ASDs are "spectrum disorders." That means ASDs affect each person in different ways, and can range from very mild to severe, the CDC reported. People with ASDs share some similar symptoms, such as problems with social interaction, but there are differences in when the symptoms start, how severe they are and the exact nature of the symptoms.

"That's the reason why autism is such a puzzle," Hackett-Hayes said. "We treat it and we treat it the best we can, but we don't know the specific cause or where it comes from."

Autism in Bartow meets the first Thursday of each month in Classroom 1 at Cartersville Medical Center.