The Pasco Sheriff’s Office has another tool, aimed at helping its deputies when responding to situations involving residents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The law enforcement agency has introduced an autism identification card program, otherwise being called Autism Assistance Cards.
The front of the cards has some general information to help deputies communicate with individuals with autism. For instance, deputies are advised to display calm body language and to allow for additional time for replies.
The back of the cards, meanwhile, offers space for an individual’s identifying information, such as name and address, and information on the person’s conditions, such as whether they are verbal vs. nonverbal.
The roughly 4-inch x 6-inch cards were designed with the help of River Ridge High School’s graphic arts class.
The ID cards are being distributed to individuals with autism, so if there’s an encounter, the card can be handed to deputies to help them know how best to work with the individual.
Cards have been provided to caregivers to share them with a loved one who has autism. They’re also being sent to special education teachers in Pasco County Schools, who can pass them along to students’ families.
Pasco Sheriff’s officials suggest the autism ID cards may prove useful in incidents in which a person is lost or separated from their caregiver, and is unable to effectively communicate their disability, or when the individual is nonverbal or low functioning.
The cards would clearly and quickly identify the individual as being on the autism spectrum — eliminating potential miscommunication or misinterpretation regarding behaviors that are common among those on the autism spectrum.
“It’s all about improved communication and interaction,” said Pasco Sheriff’s Cpt. Toni Roach, who helped spearhead the program through the agency’s Behavioral Health Intervention Team.
In addition to standard personal information on the cards, Roach encourages caregivers to use the additional writing space to list as much information possible about the adult or child with autism.
That information could include listing various conversation starters, preferred nicknames, and various likes and dislikes. It also could identify what triggers the individual, what calms him or her, and other useful information.
As an example, Roach explained she knows of one particular child with autism who enjoys talking about the Nintendo Switch video game console, “so the deputies would be able to see that information and go, ‘Oh, OK, I can talk about a Nintendo Switch and I can redirect the child to calm down, and build that rapport and then be able to communicate and figure out how we can best resolve that situation, and why we got called out there to begin with.”
Roach offered another example of how it could be beneficial: “Like, if that person doesn’t like to be called by their first name but likes to be called, ‘Kiddo,’ then I can refer to them by that term and that will be less confrontational with them.”
Besides receiving the autism ID cards, caregivers also have the opportunity to register their loved one’s name into the agency’s computer database, which alerts deputies they’re dealing with someone with autism.
Program attracting attention
People outside Pasco County also have expressed interest in the cards.
Roach said the cards have been sent to residents in Pinellas and Hernando counties. An officer with the Philadelphia Police Department even requested a digital version of the ID cards so his agency could implement a similar program, Roach said.
“We don’t care what county you live in, as far as I’m concerned, if we can help law enforcement interaction, we’re going to send out the card,” she said.
The autism ID cards seemingly have been embraced by members of the autism community.
Port Richey resident Candace Smith recently obtained a card for her 15-year-old son who’s on the autism spectrum. She’s also passing out some to her network of friends and neighbors who have family members with autism.
“I’m in support of anything that’s going to keep an autistic person safe, and allow them to have the same rights as everyone else,” Smith said. “I do like the cards, because it’s just an automatic way to communicate quickly to let somebody know, ‘This person has autism,’ and it explains their behavior, so to me, it’s a step in the right direction.”
The parent said she often worries what an encounter with law enforcement would entail with her son, who may not immediately be able to respond to orders from police. Rather, she explained her son’s first instinct or “self-soothing” calming behavior is usually to walk away from a stressful or nerve-inducing situation.
Those fears are further exacerbated because her son is a black teenager, Smith said. “I just worry a little bit more, because of how things are; just being realistic,” she said.
The challenging part going forward, Smith said, is finding a way to have her son understand how to correctly show the autism ID card to a law enforcement officer in a particular situation.
She acknowledged it will likely take “a series of conversations” and maybe even an in-person meeting with a deputy to get her son comfortable with the scenario.
For the time being, the parent is considering laminating the card and putting it on a lanyard for her son if he’s on his own. She plans to keep another card on her person with her son’s information, too.
University of South Florida’s (USF) Center for Autism & Related Disabilities (CARD) is likewise in support of the law enforcement agency’s autism ID card program.
The center’s assistant program director, Christine Rover, said the initiative is “a really important element” to cultivate more positive interactions between law enforcement and individuals with autism, in addition to ongoing training, outreach and collaboration with various public safety agencies.
She commended the sheriff’s office for implementing the tool and taking progressive steps with the autism community.
“Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has really been a leader in their efforts to include residents with ASD for a long time, so it’s kind of no surprise that they’re adding to sort of the elements here, and we really appreciate that,” Rover said.
Rover explained the next step is the need to develop supporting education materials and a video tutorial for caregivers to show to their loved ones with autism on how to properly and effectively present the card to law enforcement. It’s something the state-funded resource center is actively brainstorming, she said.
Meanwhile, Rover stressed autism-related training for law enforcement officers beforehand is also critical, whether it’s a case of wandering, a traffic incident or even a criminal situation.
“The training component for the deputies is really important, because where this card might be helpful on a scene, if it’s a really crisis scene, then the deputies aren’t going to have the time to really read a card and say, ‘Oh, here’s some tips for interacting,’ Rover said.
“Autism is an invisible disability, so they’re not coming onto a scene or arriving at a home and saying, ‘Oh, I can see that individual has autism,’ so they have to be able to recognize that perhaps some of those behaviors could be interpreted as part of the autism spectrum disorder.”
Published July 22, 2020
A Port St. Lucie-based company, Debbaudt Legacy Productions LLC, has licensed autism on-scene response cards since 2005, and has produced and circulated over 250,000 of these cards in the past 15 years.
The Laker/Lutz News ran this story about an autism assistance card program that was recently introduced at the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, through its Behavioral Health Intervention Team. The text on these autism response cards uses language very similar to the text published on the autism on-scene response cards produced by Debbaudt Legacy Productions.