There have been times, after Brent Carmichael moved to Texas from Iowa and he had been out and about with his 26-year-old son, Artez, who has autism, when there has been a little trouble.
“Several times we’ve been stopped in a traffic stop, and he’s seeing the lights and he wants to get out of the car,” Carmichael said.
In other words, the kind of reaction to law enforcement that can — and has — sent a routine call cascading toward tragedy.
But Carmichael, a former professional basketball player who has organized autism conferences and championed other causes for people with autism, knew what to do. He put together a partnership to bring respected trainer Dennis Debbaudt to North Texas to offer a free class for first responders, health care workers and other professionals.
Co-sponsored by the new Texas Autism Research and Resource Center at the University of North Texas, the class will be held Aug. 13 at UNT.
When Debbaudt wrote his first autism bulletin for the FBI in 2001, he found research showing that people with developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to have contact with law enforcement than a member of the general community.
Since then, autism rates have continued to increase. This spring, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the current rate of autism at one in 88 births.
When Debbaudt first began training sessions in the 1990s, a few hands would go up after he’d asked a room with 100 people whether they had heard the word “autism.”
Today, he says he couldn’t ask that question with any credibility. Instead, he asks whose life has been touched by autism, and 30 or 40 hands go up. Then he asks who has a family member with autism.
“Still, about 20 hands go up,” Debbaudt said.
The training spends a little bit of time explaining autism and how a first responder is going to know, in the field, whether a person might have it. No one expects first responders to do a field diagnosis but, he said, there will be clues — a puzzle piece magnet on the car or a neighbor coming out to share information.
The training also includes videos and descriptions of common and predictable situations.
Wandering is a frequent problem, and is one that claims lives of people with developmental disabilities every year, Debbaudt said.
Another comes when a parent or caregiver may be giving a high level of care to someone with autism who is having trouble with sounds, noise, lights or odors out in public. But it looks to others like an assault, and “those lead to a lot of 911 calls,” Debbaudt said.
The training focuses on safety for the first responder and, in many ways, adapts many of the techniques used by special weapons and tactics teams — securing a perimeter, focusing communication, using techniques and taking time to de-escalate the situation.
He tells first responders that a call for assistance concerning a person with autism is going to take longer. Most people can get control of themselves once they see that a threat has been removed, but people with autism often need more time.
“The adrenaline just has to flow out,” Debbaudt said.
The class will include communication and interviewing techniques. It will last about five hours and can be taken for training credits. Debbaudt and his team also offer a 40-hour class that has more in-depth training for crisis intervention teams.
He hopes the community might be inspired by the Ottawa (Ontario) Police Service, which not only put autism alert information into its 911 database, but also set up a registration system that worked with officers’ in-car laptops.
In that Canadian city, families of people with autism use decals to identify places their loved one might be — the family car, a school bus, a recreation center — with a unique number that lets police know how to respond to that individual in an emergency.
The registration system went from a pilot program to permanent after they documented that it had saved lives, Debbaudt said.
The training is meant for first responders and health care workers, but teachers, parents and other community members are welcome, Carmichael said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
What: Free autism training for first responders and health care workers
When: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 16
Where: Wooten Hall Room 122, University of North Texas