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How Minnesota troopers are learning about autism

Nov. 13, 2017

Photo of trooper's graduating.
Photo: One in 68 people is autistic. As part of their dedication to keeping all Minnesotans safe, the Minnesota State Patrol is now training cadets and sworn officers in recognizing and responding to people with autism.

Imagine how you’d feel if you woke up one morning and discovered that your son was missing. Imagine how frantic you’d feel; how powerless. You’d call 911 immediately, of course, and knowing that law enforcement were looking for him would do quite a bit to set your mind at ease.

But what if your son was autistic? It’s not that uncommon anymore. In the 1990s, about one in every 2,500 people was known to be autistic. Today that number is one in 68, having grown to 37 times more in less than 30 years. And if your son is autistic, maybe he can’t speak – about 50 percent of autistic people are non-verbal. Or maybe he experiences sensory overload and takes his clothes off when he gets uncomfortable, no matter the situation.

Perhaps, because of his inability to read social signals and his inability to adapt to changes in routine, he’ll walk out of a store with a treat he hasn’t paid for, effectively shoplifting. And if law enforcement finally track him down, what if they try to grab him? He shies away from physical contact, even yours. What if they think he’s high? What if he gets belligerent?

The Minnesota State Patrol knows that, due to the diversity of people they come into contact with every day, they should know how to respond to and safely interact with autistic members of their community. That’s why all troopers had autism training as part of their Centralized In-Service Training this fall. Troopers will also follow up later this month with an online training for reinforcement of the lessons learned about autism. And from now on, all Minnesota State Patrol cadets will receive autism training at the academy.

The training helps Minnesota troopers learn how to recognize and respond to people with autism, what sorts of dispatches will bring them into contact with autistic people, de-escalation tips, and – should it come to this – arrest and incarceration options. The autism training also offers troopers access to model programs and cross-educational opportunities with autistic children and adults and their families and supporters.

For example, troopers learn that an autistic person may seem as if they’re acting guilty by displaying such behaviors as lack of eye contact, responding slowly (or not at all) to questions, and changing the subject. But they also learn strategies for dealing with these behaviors, such as speaking in short sentences without slang or metaphors (autistic people tend to take things literally), giving the person room and avoiding touching them, and using low, calming body language and voices.

Even if you don’t have a child with autism, please know that the Minnesota State Patrol is striving to learn how to interact with everyone. It’s another step on the road to keeping Minnesotans safe.