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Polk sheriff launches decal program to alert responders to people with autism

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POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Advocates for people with autism are applauding a new program from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office that they say could prevent escalation and unnecessary hospitalizations.

“Preparing law enforcement to know when they enter a situation that it may be someone with a special need like autism is a remarkable thing,” said Alice Nuttall, associate vice president of behavioral health at Lakeland Regional Health.

The sheriff’s office has launched a program that will provide residents with decals for their homes and vehicles. It reads “Possible Occupant with Autism.”

People can register online so the information can be added to the 911 dispatch system.

“Then the deputy responding who has training already knows that we’re dealing with someone that may be on the autism spectrum. We think that’s very important,” said Sheriff Grady Judd.

The sheriff says the idea for the program came out of a conversation with a Polk County mom whose son was pulled over by a deputy.

“He was scared and didn’t react appropriately, didn’t communicate appropriately. Well, ‘the deputy didn’t know my son had autism,’” said Sheriff Judd.

The sheriff says the situation deescalated once the deputy determined the male had autism.

Deputies in Polk County undergo crisis intervention training.

For the sheriff, it’s personal too. His grandson is on the autism spectrum.

“Most wonderful, kind, gentle, smart, intelligent person that I’ve ever met. But you need to know that things upset him that may not upset the child without autism,” he said.

So the sheriff saw an opportunity to improve the services his deputies provide to the community, especially those affected by autism.

“A lot of communication with people with autism is to first understand that and then to speak clearly and calmly. Autistic folks can get really excited really quick and have adverse reactions,” he said.

“Autism, out in the field, of a patient that’s escalated is one of those things that leads to unnecessary hospitalizations,” said Nuttall.

She says people with autism often can be wrongfully Baker Acted by first responders who may misinterpret their behavior.

“Someone will be in a situation where their physical actions, they will become violent. They will hurt their family member. It’s because a situation that has gotten to such a level that they don’t have the ability to calm themselves down,” she said.

“I wish this was something that I had when I was a kid growing up with autism,” said Kerry Magro, a professional speaker and advocate for people with autism.

Magro was diagnosed with autism when he was four years old, struggling with sensory challenges.

“I would move my arms around a lot. During those situations, first responders kind of sometimes looked at me very confused. They didn’t know how to interact with somebody who was dealing with those challenges,” said Magro.

Magro says he trains law enforcement officials on how to interact with people with autism.

“Be concise when you’re giving a command. It’s really really important to be concise. It’s also important that first responders really focus on keeping their tone at a monotone level,” he advises.

Other law enforcement agencies have similar programs. In Hillsborough County, the sheriff’s office launched its “Project Safe Encounter” last year.

To register for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office autism decal program, email autismdecal@polksheriff.org and a Crime Prevention Specialist will send you the form and corresponding information.

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