Emergency officials get autism training

Mountain View's police and fire departments have been getting special training lately -- learning how to improve their interactions with people with autism.

Brad Boardman, executive director of the Morgan Autism Center, talked with the Voice about the workshops he gives around the Bay Area, including the seminar he held last month in Mountain View for local emergency responders.

It is increasingly common for police and firefighters to encounter autistic men and women when responding to the scene of a crime or fire, Boardman said. That's because rates of autism are have been on the rise for many years especially in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley and because federal, state and local government spending cuts have led to reductions in the number of affordable daytime programs for severely autistic adults. Afterschool programs for autistic children have also suffered cuts.

It is particularly important for police and fire officials to know how to spot signs of autism in individuals they may contact, Boardman explained. Severely autistic men and women may have trouble communicating or might act inappropriately in the presence of an emergency responder, and being able to determine that someone is possibly autistic can help in improving communication and understanding.

"Many times people with autism don't understand social hierarchies," Boardman said. They might not follow directions well, which could lead an officer to assume a subject is being disrespectful or even represents a threat.

An autistic person might even "reach for an officer's badge or gun," Boardman continued -- not in an attempt to attack the officer, but simply because the item interests them. In some cases, an autistic person may not be able to speak or even understand the speech of others, he said.

Boardman said he helps emergency officials understand how the autistic mind works, how to look for signs of autism, and some tips on how to have more productive exchanges with autistic people.

According to Boardman, he has encountered many officials during these training sessions who recall an interaction with an autistic individual, which they believe would have gone better had they been better trained.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Trudy
a resident of Willowgate
on Jan 17, 2014 at 8:29 pm

What a service to the community! I applaud Boardman's efforts. We need similar training in other mental health issues.

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Posted by kathryn page
a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2014 at 9:06 pm

I wonder in what way the presentation differs from talks on mental health or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders--seems like the core of all these conditions in regard to law enforcement would be the inappropriate responses, over-sharing of information to one's legal detriment, and difficulty grasping language or consequences. GREAT that this is happening.

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Posted by Jane
a resident of North Whisman
on Jan 18, 2014 at 8:41 am

Wonder why "autism is on the rise"?

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hmm
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 18, 2014 at 10:16 am

"We need similar training in other mental health issues."

Good point, one that comes to mind is Epilepsy.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike Long Time Resident
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jan 19, 2014 at 1:11 am

My son who is on the Autism spectrum was stopped and questioned last October by officers who did treat him well though they were not very aware of what Autism was, and he was very compliant at the time. If he had become scared it could have been different. I wrote a letter to the Police Chief to ask for training and am elated this has happened. I applaud MVPD for this move and leading the way to ensure that people with this disability affecting how they appear in public can be recognized. His school (MVHS) is also is teaching Autistic students how to respond to law enforcement too so kudos to them. I'm proud to be in a community that takes real and positive action to protect the most vulnerable.

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Posted by William Stillman
a resident of another community
on Jan 20, 2014 at 8:24 am

I recently read a similar article in Pennsylvania regarding sensitivity training for the Pittsburgh police department; I will give the same applause to the Mountain View police and fire departments in their endeavor to better understand those on the autism spectrum through autism sensitivity training. I am hopeful that they will continue to partner with individuals and families in the autism community to enhance their knowledge base, as well as to consider how their efforts may have good influence on other public safety departments nationwide. --William Stillman, Editor-in-Chief,

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