Training in autism and mental health guides tactics in local police response

Training in autism and mental health guides tactics in local police response

The Westerly Sun
reporter photo

A little more than a decade ago, the advice for responding to possible criminal behavior or disorderly situations was virtually the same for all officers: Be aggressive and do whatever it takes, use whatever force necessary to take control of the situation.

Hopkinton Police Chief David Palmer, who began his career in 1981, recalls the react-first, ask-questions-later type of response he was taught when completing training at the Rhode Island Municipal Police Academy in the 1980s.

But with a growing understanding of mental health challenges, including autism, which can cause unexplained and aggressive reactions in high-sensory situations, Palmer said law enforcement is taking a different approach these days.

“We’ve come a long way in the past decade,” Palmer said. “There’s an entirely different mentality these days when it comes to policing, and having an understanding of conditions such as autism plays an important role in protecting the public and getting the right help for those who need it.”   

Across the region, local law enforcement officials have improved training, implemented new and updated policies, and are working more hand-in-hand with health officials in an effort to better serve the communities.  

A change in response

A change in understanding has meant a change in response for local police. Palmer said what was once an at-all-costs approach used by police is no longer in existence. Instead, officers are taught to approach situations with caution, look for signs of autism or other conditions, and respond accordingly.

“Our officers, and even more so the newest members, are taught from the beginning to always approach with caution. They keep their distance, speak calmly when possible and evaluate the level of danger before rushing into it,” he said.

The reason for this approach? To avoid unnecessary and avoidable confrontation when it comes to dealing with those on the autism spectrum, according to Lindsay Naeder of the New England Chapter of Autism Speaks.

For those living with autism, the sensory overload of an emergency response can be overwhelming. The flashing lights and loud noises can trigger a “breakdown,” which can cause those with autism to freeze, or in more extreme circumstances, become inexplicably aggressive.

Naeder and several local law enforcement leaders including Palmer, Westerly Police Chief Richard Silva and Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson, said that by slowing the approach, you can find other ways to connect with an individual and possibly defuse a situation before it escalates.

Local agencies are also using different responses when it comes to children with autism, using tablet computers and other devices to connect, or in extreme cases even chatting through smiley faces on a piece of paper. Olson said ultimately, the goal is to defuse a situation without force whenever necessary.

Another change in approach, Olson explained, occurs right away through dispatchers. He said staff members are taught to ask questions and learn as much as possible, including whether there may be mental health conditions involved, such as with those on the autism spectrum, that could influence behavior.

“Across the board, the name of the game now is to slow things down and find out what is triggering the episode,” Olson said. “It’s not always about making an arrest — sometimes our job is to figure out the best way to help a person out.”

Using resources

One aspect of law enforcement that has changed drastically in recent years is the training. Understanding of conditions such as autism has become an important part of the curriculum at the Rhode Island Municipal Police Academy, and each department holds annual mental health training sessions to update officers with the latest information and resource tools available.

In Westerly, officers are given mental health training in-house at least once per year. Silva said these sessions often focus on helping officers identify signs and triggers of when different mental health conditions could be at play. He said officers are also given resources, including contact information for health professionals and organizations that can assist with response to dangerous situations.

Hopkinton and Stonington police are no different. Both Palmer and Olson said their agencies conduct annual training and reviews.

“In order to prevent a serious emergency, you need to understand what you are dealing with,” Olson explained. “We want the training; we want to know how to provide a permanent fix for a person, especially someone who needs help.”  

But when it comes to changing an approach, police aren’t the only ones making adjustments. Silva notes that law enforcement agencies across the region have built and strengthened partnerships with other first responders and court officials to help better meet the needs of those with autism, as well as a variety of other mental health conditions.

Silva notes that in Westerly, the department is fortunate to have a strong relationship with Westerly Hospital and officers have the ability to contact the hospital and its experts whenever mental health comes into question.

“Through that access to the hospital, we are able to help address conditions that may have previously gone unnoticed,” Silva said. “In crisis conditions, sometimes the best response is to get them to the hospital where professionals can evaluate and more directly offer them the help they truly need.”

First responders also have a vast amount of resources in state and regional organizations. The Rhode Island-based Autism Project works to help put law enforcement in touch with groups including the Autism Society of Rhode Island and Bailey’s Team for Autism, a Massachusetts-based organization, to provide full training opportunities. Autism Speaks has also held numerous training sessions and will work directly with department leaders utilizing a train-the-trainer program when requested.

Additional resources are also available to all first responders 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, through the Autism Research Institute at

The future

In Stonington, officers are also looking ahead to ways in which they can further improve response. The town now has the early workings of a potential volunteer database at its disposal, thanks in large part to the work of Roger Kizer, information technology manager for the town, and Stonington Human Services Director Leanne Theodore.

The new database, called the Citizens with Autism Safety System, is 100 percent volunteer and is intended to provide first responders with information that could be essential in a response. The information can help in searching for a missing child, or explain factors such as communication anxieties or other social disabilities and reactions that could complicate matters in a police response.

The database closely mimics one recently implemented in Cranston, where officials said they have seen a strong early response.

Despite being in the early stages of implementation, the design earned the town recognition from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities for its work to advance resources available to those with autism and their families.

Olson said it’s a bit early yet to call the system active — it launched formally in November and has only a few names — but said the department is looking at how to best use the technology to enhance its response. He added that the department will ensure that any voluntarily shared information is properly protected, and that policies are in place to make sure the resource is used the right way.

“We are being cautious right now, we want to make sure we are using it correctly and appropriately. The goal remains to better serve the community,” Olson said.


Latest Videos