Police, schools create youth autism registry

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Following training in how to recognized and deal with autism in April 2016, the Cranston Police Department has initiated a voluntary registry for youths with autism.

“We’re more educated on recognizing the signs of people on the autism spectrum now,” said Police Chief Michael Winquist. “Our officers are better trained to recognize symptoms when responding to a call and more able to safely interact with those individuals and make better decisions.”

The goal of the program is to improve the safety of children on the autism spectrum if and when they have an interaction with a police officer. By identifying home addresses and information of the children, and by working with Cranston Public Schools, the registry will allow officers to know when they are dealing with someone who has autism.

Once parents and families put this information into the registry, it’ll pop up in the system on the officer’s computers when responding to a call, according to Winquist.

According to the United States Center for Disease Control, “persons with autism are estimated to have up to seven times more contact with law enforcement agencies during their lifetimes, yet only 20 percent of patrol responses related to individuals with autism involved criminal activity.”

And in Cranston, 181 students age 6 through 21 are on the autism spectrum, according to a 2016 report from the RI Department of Education, which is shown in the fact-book that RI Kids Count has on their website regarding students with disabilities.

Joanne Quinn is the executive director of the Autism Project in Rhode Island and commended Cranston for the work it’s doing on this.

“Our state has done a really good job working with the autism society and getting training into our state,” she said. “It’s important that towns take the time to get to know families, especially those with disabilities. It’s very isolating to have a disability and it’s hard asking people for help.”

Quinn added that this program would benefit the community because “whenever a first responder or police particularly are responding to a situation, it’s better to have more information.” She noted the voluntary aspect of the registry as especially important, because she doesn’t believe forcing people to put their information in would be right.

She also said that sometimes when a police responds to someone who is on the autism spectrum and the officer isn’t aware, it could lead to a misinterpretation of the person’s actions, “like they’re on drugs.”

Quinn lauded the work Cranston and the state have done to better deal with incidents involving autistic people, but also said that “lots more training needs to be done” going forward.

As for the registry, forms can be filled out by parents on the Cranston Police website and are also being distributed to parents at Cranston schools. This information will not be shared with anyone outside of the police department, until the program is eventually expanded to the fire department.

As for participation in the registry, Chief Winquist believes it will be high because of the help it can provide.

“I do [think parents will put their kids on the registry] because it’s only going to make a situation safer for a particular child, he said. “The information is being held in strict confidence. Any parent would want the officers to be able to recognize a situation involving someone with autism.”

Winquist thinks this participation will help future situations immensely.

“By providing our officers with basic information about how to best approach and communicate with some with autism, we will be able to prevent behavioral escalation and resolve a situation easily,” he said.

Mayor Allan Fung added that he applauds the department for “establishing this registry, obtaining autism training and taking proactive steps to ensure positive interactions between city police officers and children on the autism spectrum.”

The program is already implemented on the police department’s website and forms will be passed out through schools as well.

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