BELTON — Taking some of the mystery out of autism and law enforcement for both police officers and autistic children was a gathering’s goal.
The Badges and Buddies event Thursday evening also was an opportunity to break down barriers, take away fear and ease misunderstanding.
A panel of nine children on the autism spectrum and a group of police officers from multiple Central Texas law enforcement agencies sat down to exchange questions, thoughts and suggestions — and there was never a dull moment.
The children were asked to raise their hands to ask questions, and Erin Mott wanted to know about police dogs. The excitement level hit the roof as Peaches and her handler, Troy Police Department Officer Jefferson Mullenax, made their way to the front of the room. Erin started to pet Peaches but hesitated as the dog seemed to want to take the paper with her questions written on it.
Matthias Lease wanted to know if the officers had seen the movie Radio. One officer said he loved that movie.
“What gave you the idea to join the police force?” Clare Sherman asked. Bell County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Joshua Cox replied that he joined to help people and because other members of his family were officers.
In a light-hearted moment, Vincent Brown asked what started cops with donuts. As everyone laughed, a Harker Heights Police detective asked Vincent if he liked donuts. When Vincent said he did, the detective replied with a chuckle he guessed that’s how it started.
Matthew Tucker, a Belton High School junior, had more serious questions for the officers.
“What would you do if there was an emergency involving a kid with autism and the kid has his hands over his ears screaming?” Tucker asked.
A female officer said she’d try to separate him from the noise, find out what triggered his behavior, take him to a darker place and be patient until she could help him cope.
When it was Matthew’s turn again, he asked what an officer would do if someone broke into an autistic kid’s home, the kid called 911 and he hid in the closet. The Harker Heights detective said he would open the door and ask how he could help.
Another piece of advice from an officer was for the child to let the person on the phone know they were autistic if they could because that would help the officer when or she got there.
“Do you save people’s lives?” Andrew Adams wanted to know.
Belton Police Sgt. Kimberly Hamilton said four years ago she saved an 18-month-old’s life.
Matthias said he was once trapped in his room because the door knob wouldn’t work. He said it took the police department to get him out. His mother spoke up and said the officers helped him stay calm.
One of the things the panel of children expected to see Thursday night was the police chiefs, one child said.
Learning about autism
Given the chance to ask the children questions, one officer asked what they should look for to know if someone is in the autism spectrum. That question brought a lot of answers — hand twitching, scripting, walking back and forth, heavy breathing, loud voices, speech problems like stuttering, different movements and rocking back and forth.
“How can we make you feel safe or comfortable?” an officer asked.
The children responded with answers like don’t make loud noises, talk slowly, ask if they need time to calm down, tell them what they’re there for, get their mother and “quiet is better.”
Isabella Carruth is an adult with autism and has her own business — Positive Dog Training with Isabella.
She explained that her own autism was misdiagnosed when she was a child, and gave the officers tips on how to work with adults in the autistic spectrum.
“We want to comply. Sometimes we just freeze up, get nonverbal,” Carruth said. “Don’t talk too loud and don’t assume we’re stupid.”
Carruth also told officers to turn them away from lights and avoid touching.
“Autistics often have more disabilities,” she said. “Don’t go behind them. Ask for a wallet ID card. And we have movements that could be perceived as dangerous.”
Law enforcement’s role
Central Texas law enforcement agencies often deal with people with autism or mental health issues.
On Tuesday, Temple Police officers responded when a female was yelling in the 3600 block of Fairway Drive. The young female had an autism disorder, according to a police report. The girl’s mother said the girl was off her medication and threatened to hurt herself the previous day. Officers told the mother the girl could be transported to the hospital to be evaluated. Temple EMS transported her and, upon arrival at the hospital, said the girl made an outcry on the way. Child Protective Service was called to conduct an investigation of injury to a child, Temple Police Department spokeswoman Ellen Morton said.
In September, a man who died after a struggle with Temple Police reportedly suffered from an intellectual disability and chronic pain from sickle cell anemia. Stephen Gayle, 40, also had nerve pain in his legs that caused them to lock up and kick sometimes, his sister told the Telegram. Gayle was staying with his friend in the Wayman Manor Apartments and had been in Temple for several weeks, according to his sister.
The Temple Police Department turned over videos from body and dash cameras to the Texas Rangers in connection with Gayle’s death. No further information has been released about what exactly led to Gayle’s death.
The Badges and Buddies event drew officers from several law enforcement agencies in Bell and Coryell counties. They earned credit from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement for attending, but the looks on the faces of the officers showed they earned a lot more than that Thursday night.
Copperas Cove Police Officer Kevin Miller was invited to attend because some residents in his community are in the autism spectrum, he said. Miller said that everyone needs to learn about autism.
Other agencies represented were Temple, Belton, Troy, Salado, Harker Heights and Killeen police departments and the Bell County Sheriff’s Department.
Hamilton has a child in the autism spectrum, she said, and she was personally asked if she would be on the panel of officers.
Autism is also personal for Bell County Assistant District Attorney Anne Jackson, one of the organizers of the Bell County Autism Intervention Team that hosted the Thursday night meeting.
Jackson’s son, Michael “Tres” Jackson, is in the autism spectrum. He isn’t driving yet, but he will be one day, she said.
“It’s important that we share with everyone and erase the misunderstanding and fear between law enforcement officers and those in the autism spectrum,” Jackson said. “Did you see the looks on the officers’ faces while Isabella was talking? They were really listening to her.”