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AUTISM 101: Richmond County first responders learn how to have positive interactions with those on the spectrum

Officers of the Rockingham Police Department and other local first responders get a crash course in autism from Amy Perry of the Autism Society of N.C. Aug. 24 at Hinson Lake.
William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — Around 20 first responders from around Richmond County on Tuesday received a crash course in how to interact with those on the autism spectrum.

The Richmond County Chapter of the Autism Society of North Carolina hosted the informational session, led by Autism Resource Specialist Amy Perry, at Hinson Lake, with members of the Rockingham police and fire departments, Hamlet Fire and Rescue, Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, Richmond County Emergency Services and Richmond County Schools Special Police in attendance.

Perry is very familiar with autism, having a nonverbal daughter and two nephews on the spectrum. She used experiences she has had to give examples of scenarios while delivering the presentation.

She said training first responders to handle situations involving those with autism came following the 2004 death of Sidney Templeton.

According to news reports, Templeton, who was 44 at the time, hit his mother when he became upset about a new home health aid. His mother called the Statesville Police Department.

Templeton reportedly spit on and assaulted officers, who eventually restrained him with handcuffs, leg restraints and a “special hood” to protect the officers from “potential blood-borne pathogens in his saliva.”

Templeton reportedly continued to struggle with officers once they arrived at the Iredell County Jail and he eventually choked on his own vomit due to severe agitation, according to the pathologist who performed the autopsy.

“You can’t always see autism,” Perry said, adding that the neurobiological disorder is on a spectrum and is different in different people. “If you’ve seen one person with autism, you’ve seen one person with autism.”

The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 57 8-year-olds in North Carolina could be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Perry said when she started 12 years ago, that number was 1 in 111.

Nearly 21,000 students in the state’s public schools have been diagnosed on the spectrum, Perry said, adding that number doesn’t include those who are home-schooled or do not have an individualized education program.

Perry explained that children — and even adults — with autism may or may not talk, or may not respond to directions or questions, or respond in a way that’s considered inappropriate.

“They’re not necessarily being disrespectful,” Perry said. “It’s a lack of social understanding.”

Those with autism often have problems understanding facial expressions and body language and may seem argumentative, she said, adding that they may not recognize a uniform or badge as a symbol of authority.

When questioned, they may repeat the question or guess what they think the correct social response could be, Perry continued.

Those with autism can also be sensitive to sensory overloads involving sounds, lights and touch and can be easily overwhelmed, which could lead to impulsive or aggressive behavior — or running.

According to a 2009 article in Science Daily, researchers at the University of Washington found that the amygdala — the section of the brain linked to the “flight-or-fight” response — tends to have “abnormal growth patterns” in those diagnosed with autism.

New situations or people and a break in routines can also cause agitation.

Perry gave an example of when the military police at Fort Bragg were called after her daughter had a meltdown because a caregiver took an unfamiliar route to Target.


Luckily, Perry said, the officers listened to her explain the situation once she got to the scene.

Perry said it’s important to try and calm them down before trying to ask questions or give directions. Physical force, she added, can backfire.

During a similar seminar, Perry said a first responder once asked how to tell the difference between the erratic behavior of someone on drugs and someone with autism.

The response: experience.

Among the “Helpful Approach Strategies” suggested to first responders are:

  • Follow the lead of the caregiver, if one is present
  • Approach slowly, with a calm voice
  • Give extra time for responses or rephrase questions, or give space if there are signs of increased anxiety
  • Avoid sensory overload, calm the environment by turning off lights and sirens and dispersing crowds
  • Avoid sudden touching; restrain only if they’re a danger to themselves or others

Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelly said the presentation was important for officers to recognize some of the signs of autism “and how we can better benefit people with autism in our community.”

“Surely, it helps us to more help them,” Kelly said. “I’m glad this training was offered.”

During his 30 years in law enforcement, Kelly said this was the first autism-specific training session he had been to, though there has been training that briefly covered the topic.

Capt. Richard Greene said autism is one part of Crisis Intervention Team training, which about half the department has completed.

The presentation came just one day following an interaction.

“We responded to an incident where a child was irate towards a parent on the side of a roadway,” Detective Lt. George Gillenwater said, adding that there were multiple calls about the situation. “Turns out, the child was autistic and the parent explained as much. It was a positive interaction and a learning experience.”

With many of the patrol officers on school traffic duty, Kelly said he hopes to have Perry come speak to the rest of the department at a later date.

Richard Lassiter, assistant chief of the Hamlet Fire Department, said the information could be helpful, especially in search and rescue operations.

Perry said it’s common for those with autism to try to escape their environment and, often head for water.

Lassiter said there have been a few interactions in the past with autistic patients and he and his team have learned about sensory overload with the lights and sirens.

“You just have to approach them very gently,” he said.





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