Houlton police department helping to educate officers, community about autism

Posted Oct. 21, 2011, at 7:55 p.m.

HOULTON, Maine — Ever since her 6-year-old nephew was diagnosed with autism 10 months ago, Karen McPherson of Presque Isle has been “extremely worried.”

“It is my brother’s first child, and none of us know much about the disorder,” she said Friday afternoon. “And at the same time, we know that not a lot of other people do, either. It is hard on my brother and his family, because my nephew behaves differently in public sometimes, and that gets them a lot of stares and some dirty looks. It is tough, not having that understanding.”

That lack of understanding was brought to the attention of the Houlton Police Department last month by a citizen who has an autistic grandchild. A bit of research revealed that people with autism and other developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to come into contact with law enforcement authorities, which prompted the department to do something about it.

Together with the Aroostook Chiefs of Police Association, the department is sponsoring an autism forum from 6-8:30 p.m. on Oct. 26 in the training room of the Houlton Fire Department. It is open to the public and is especially geared toward social workers, law enforcement personnel and educators. There is no cost to attend.

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders, according to Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism science and advocacy organization.

Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin said the idea was presented to him by a cadet from this year’s Citizens Police Academy. The academy allows citizens to get better insight into police work. Asselin said the cadet has a grandchild in Houlton who is autistic, and the chief learned that there are approximately 50 people in the greater Houlton area living with autism.

That sparked the organization of the training, which will be led by Matthew Brown, a U.S. probation officer and Washington, D.C., native with 24 years of experience in law enforcement. He has served as an information specialist with the Autism Society of Maine since 2004 and has created and delivered autism trainings to police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, dispatchers and other first responders. He is an instructor at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and trains new officers on how to interact with people who have autism. He also is the parent of an autistic child.

It is estimated that one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined. An estimated 1.5 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide are affected by autism, according to statistics from Autism Speaks. Government statistics suggest the prevalence rate of autism is increasing 10-17 percent annually. There is no known cause or cure. Autism affects the way an individual perceives the world and makes communication and social interaction difficult.

McPherson said her nephew had some of the typical signs of autism.

“He didn’t really engage with people and didn’t really seem to want to play,” she said. “We thought he was just shy or a bit behind his age in development. He learned to walk and talk and things, but little things seemed to overwhelm him. It is hard for my brother to take him out to playgrounds and into toy stores, the typical things kids enjoy, because it just overwhelms him. He just has a melt down. And then the parents get looks from people who don’t understand, as if they are these bad parents who can’t control their children.”

Individuals with autism can have difficulty regulating their emotions and can by disruptive and physically aggressive. At times, they may break things, attack others or hurt themselves. In their frustration, some bang their heads, pull their hair or bite their arms, according to Autism Speaks.

Asselin said the Maine Criminal Justice Academy now requires that all police officers in Maine receive two hours of mandatory training on interacting with persons diagnosed with autism. When he was approached with the figure related to the number of people in the area with autism, the chief said he felt another training was necessary.

“People with autism often display behaviors that can easily cause a law enforcement officer to misinterpret their conduct or behavior as being suspicious, non-compliant, or threatening,” he said, “It is important that law enforcement officers and public safety dispatchers in Houlton and Aroostook County be readily able to identify characteristics that can potentially pose problems for the police such as sensitivity.”

He said the forum is designed to promote a community partnership among case managers, educators, law enforcement, firefighters and family members with relatives who are autistic or have other developmental disabilities.

McPherson said Friday that she was unaware of the statistics regarding people with autism and their contact with law enforcement. She praised the Houlton department for its education efforts.

“I don’t think there is enough education out there,” she said. “What they are doing is fantastic.”

Seating is limited, so anyone interested in attending should call the police department to register at 532-2287.

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