All Children’s program helps law enforcement interact with people on autism spectrum

Pinellas County

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital is introducing a new program that aims to clearly define how officers interact with those on the autism spectrum. 

“It’s really a simulation-based training program for our law enforcement officers to help them be better prepared on how to manage and encounter with a child or young adult who has autism or is on the autism spectrum,” said Dr. Jen Arnold, the medical director at the Center for Medical Simulation and Innovative Education.

The hospital created a simulated situation on Thursday. Medical actors portrayed a scenario where a child with autism had an outburst in class.

Local law enforcement officers, including St. Petersburg Officer Carla Ramos, were in attendance for the special training. 

“Prior to this training, we are all kind of on like a one-way, like this person is acting this way, so maybe I will have to go hands-on because they aren’t listening to me. It may get escalated,” Officer Ramos said. “But with a person with autism, with this training, you realize you need to take a step back.”

The 25-year-old actress who played a student with autism during the simulation tells 8 On Your Side she connects with her character because she is on the spectrum herself.  

“It is such a broad spectrum and it can literally look like anything, act like anything. So it is important to be extremely mindful and empathetic because you don’t know what people are going through,” said Gabby Cabrera.

The program, funded by a $95,000 grant from the Cigna Foundation, is believed to be the first of its kind. It’s one the hospital hopes to offer each month.

“Really the idea is that we now provide that opportunity to give feedback about how to best have that interaction, how to de-escalate, how to support the person without causing trauma or harm or even putting anyone at risk,” said Arnold.

Legislation requiring autism training for Florida law enforcement officers was enacted several years ago following a shooting involving a North Miami Police officer and a man with autism.  

The North Miami officer shot an unarmed therapist who was protecting his severely autistic client back in 2016. The autistic man had been the intended target.

“There is no real wording or understanding of what that necessarily entails. Some agencies use just a video training but we decided we want to do an in-person training here that was really comprehensive, that includes in-person training as well as the simulation training,” said Dr. Lauren Gardner, the administrative director of the Autism Program.

Gardner also believes the new program will increase positive outcomes by enabling officers to successfully diffuse crisis situations that may otherwise result in arrest or Baker Act.

Law enforcement departments are encouraged to visit the Johns Hopkins autism training page for more information.

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