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Strategies to Help Police Address Citizens With Special Needs

A New Jersey man reaches out to police ahead of a possible altercation to make sure authorities are aware of his son’s autism-related issues.

Gary Weitzen’s son Christopher has autism. Christopher has anxiety issues, and it is difficult for him to look people in the eye. Because of his anxiety, when he was younger, he would take off running if he was not constantly supervised. “Our friends called our house Fort Weitzen,” said Gary. “I couldn’t let Christopher out of my sight.”

Now Christopher is in his twenties. He likes to take walks at night, though he appears angry and noncommunicative to people who are unaware of his issues.

Gary informed the local police in South Orange, New Jersey about his son’s issues, as well as his parents’ contact information. They understand that John Deere tractors and Thomas the Tank Engine characters may help him calm down, and they are aware of his anxiety triggers.

“It’s a smart move,” said Sgt. Adrian Acevedo, “to tell us his son is blowing off steam, has special needs, and won’t make eye contact or listen to us. If we didn’t have this information, we could mistakenly take him for a burglar.”

According to a 2017 study by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University, one in five teens with autism are stopped and questioned by police before age 21, and five percent are arrested. Research done by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that people with disabilities, such as autism, are five times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population, and “civilian injuries and fatalities during police interactions are disproportionately common among this population.”

According to Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, her group has published “The Big Red Safety Box” and “Meet the Police” programs to help parents address wandering and police interactions.

Weitzen said educating local police about a person’s disabilities can save lives, especially since people with autism “may keep their hands in their pockets because it’s a coping mechanism. They may repeat a word because it helps them focus. Not all uniformed personnel understand these behaviors.”

In 2016, North Miami Police shot a behavioral therapist who was trying to calm down a young man with autism who was holding a toy truck the officers mistook as a weapon.

Educating officers can prevent such situations. According to Sgt. Acevedo, “Knowing your child and having your child know us completely changes that situation.” 



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