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N.H. parents of children with autism want consistency, empathy in police interactions

 Clinicians at the Moore Center say they focused much on the training on understanding sensory vulnerabilities and communication needs for people with autism and other disabilities.
Image courtesy of Heather Hamel
Clinicians at the Moore Center say they focused much on the training on understanding sensory vulnerabilities and communication needs for people with autism and other disabilities.

In an attempt to equip the Manchester Police Department to improve their response to calls involving autistic people and people with other developmental disabilities, the department has added a new four-hour training for its 250 officers.

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NHPR spoke to several parents in New Hampshire that expressed concern over law enforcement interaction with their children. But this training was prompted in part by the advocacy of one Manchester resident. NHPR is not identifying her to protect the family’s privacy.

After her son with autism was arrested after he called the police last spring, the woman reached out to the Moore Center, which works with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and acquired brain disorder.

A representative from the center and the woman met with the Manchester police department in the fall to discuss the need for training.

The department prioritized the training because officers frequently interact with autistic people, said Sergeant Derek Cataldo, director of training at the Manchester Police Department.

Some traits of autistic people, like social anxiety, difficulty making eye contact and sensory sensitivity are interpreted as suspicious behavior by police officers across the country, which can contribute to violent encounters between police and the public.

Those same traits can also lead residents to call the police about autistic people, said Cataldo.

For autistic Black and Latino people in New Hampshire and across the country, these concerns are magnified significantly, due to racial bias.

Cataldo said the training, which clinicians at the Moore Center are facilitating, may help officers identify those with autism during encounters and teach skills that can help officers resolve a call without conflict.

“A lot of times it’s an invisible disability,” he said. “You can't just tell by looking at someone, even if sometimes you're talking to them quickly, you still can’t tell.”

But it can be difficult to know the true impact of any single effort, like a training.

“I think it's very hard to measure besides anecdotally,” said Barbara Didona, the director of training and communications at the Moore Center.

And data on the training’s effectiveness is hard to come by for departments across the country. In 2020, Spectrum surveyed dozens of large police departments across the U.S. Of the 20 departments that responded, 18 reported that they offer autism-related training for officers, but only two had collected data suggesting that violent encounters decreased after training.

In Merrimack, officers have had multiple training programs to work with autistic residents and those with disabilities, said Chief Brian Levesque.

But Katharine Dutton, who has two sons with autism, says not all officers in the town seem well prepared to respond to calls if children with autism are involved. Levesque says he encourages people who have had negative experiences with Merrimack police to reach out to the department.

Dutton’s sons are 10 and 14, and both have had interactions with the police. Often her oldest child will run away from school, and law enforcement is called.

"We've had some really wonderful, compassionate officers” she said, “and we've also had some less than compassionate officers that came in very angry, very hostile and made the situation much worse."

In January, one interaction with law enforcement left her youngest terrified of the police. Dutton says it’s made her anxious about calling for help in the future.

It’s a feeling that Jennifer Pike and her son Charlie, 17, of New London, identify with too.

Pike said as a person with a disability who uses crutches, sometimes she needs help when Charlie’s behavior becomes aggressive.

Pike and her son have built a working relationship with New London police after about two years, something Pike wishes happened from the start. But now, they are experiencing homelessness and living in a New London hotel. Soon, they may need to move to a different part of the state.

The thought of moving to an area with an unknown police department terrifies Pike.

“I’d be afraid to call, because I'm afraid to put my son in harm’s way,” she said.

Copyright 2022 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

Alli is NHPR's All Things Considered intern.
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