Law enforcement trainer teaching class on responding to people with autism
SAN MARCOS — Dennis Debbaudt’s son was fussing on the floor of a toy store. People were staring. Debbaudt carried him out crying.
But as he buckled him in to his car seat, Debbaudt was surrounded by mall security officers. They were responding to a report that someone in the store had made about a possible child abduction, and when they quizzed Debbaudt’s son, the boy grew even more upset. He was autistic, and what little speaking skills he had were buried by tears.
Debbaudt didn’t fault the shopper for alerting security, but the experience, which occurred years ago, piqued his interested in how law enforcement interacts with people who have autism. Now Debbaudt, an author and trainer of law enforcement officers, said he focuses on helping them learn how best to respond to people with autism.
Next month, he will lead a four-hour training class in San Marcos on autism recognition and response for law officers, other first responders and anyone else in the community who is interested.
The training is a statewide initiative of the Texas Autism Research and Resource Center, a project of the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, which is sponsoring the class, department spokeswoman Cecilia Cavuto said.
The goal is to improve first responders’ understanding of the disorder, she said, and the agency has been canvassing communities statewide to find out if they’re interested in hosting such a training for law enforcement professionals and the community.
Autism affects 1 in 88 children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Classes have so far been scheduled for San Antonio, Denton and Harlingen, Cavuto said, while Austin hosted similar training sessions in June.
Jamie Page, chief deputy at the Hays County sheriff’s office, said he’s sending representatives to glean any new information about autism and tips on interacting with autistic people to augment what officers already know.
“When I went through police academy in 1974, we didn’t address any of this,” he said, adding that all peace officers are now required to complete at least a minimum level of training that includes basic knowledge about autism. Basic police training has evolved, he said, and officers are more sensitive to it now.
Phil Jackson, an officer at the San Marcos Police Department, said knowing that someone is autistic can change how an officer approaches the person. If the officer knew or suspected someone had autism, Jackson said, that could mean walking more slowly or not touching the person.
Debbaudt said officer and public safety is uppermost, as is striving to be sensitive to someone with autism by taking such possible steps as turning off the lights and sirens, or speaking in simple, clear sentences without innuendo.
The autistic community has a role to play too, he said.
“Have a plan in place just in case you have to call 911,” he said. “When both communities get a little understanding of the other’s needs, when field contact occurs, there’s a good chance they’ll (all) be safer, more informed and less at risk.”
Contact Ciara O’Rourke at 512-392-8750
If you go
The class is scheduled for 1-5 p.m. Aug. 22 at the Hays County Government Center, 712 S. Stagecoach Trail. Those interested in attending must register by Aug. 17 by filling out a form on the county’s website or by contacting John Roppolo, chief investigator for the Hays County district attorney’s office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-393-7619.