UPDATE, June 13: This story has been posted on the Huffington Post.
A 15-year-old autistic boy is shocked with a Taser by police at a Johnston movie theater because he can't calm down.
The police were responding to a disagreement between the autistic 15-year old and another teen over a stolen wallet.But the situation quickly mushroomed into charges disorderly conduct, theft, and assault with injury on a police officer against the autistic boy, whose parents let him go with friends to watch "The Avengers" at the theater.
"You don't want to see me get mad," the boy told Police Officer Cale McClain after swearing at him, according to a videotape. (Patch does not identify juveniles accused of crimes.) The officer tells the boy to calm down or "it's going to be bad" and threatens to Tase him, according to DesMoinesRegister.com.
"The tsunami of autistic adults is beginning to arrive. We'd better be ready or we will continue to have tragic outcomes..."
Autism advocates and experts say the May incident illustrates the need for more training about autism for first-responders as the number of young people with autism increases exponentially in America.
"The tsunami of autistic adults is beginning to arrive. We'd better be ready or we will continue to have tragic outcomes in these situations," wrote Sherry Cook, a Lexington, KY, parent of an autistic child, in commenting on the Patch.com article.
Number of Autistic Children Continues to Climb
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, in late March, revised its statistics on the prevalence of autism in America. According to the agency's latest statistics, one in 88 American children is diagnosed on the autism spectrum, a 78 percent increase since 2002. The agency has consistently reported an increasing prevalence of the disorder, although it's unclear why.
Dennis Debbaudt recounts the growth of autism in America this way. When his now-28-year-old son, Brad, was diagnosed in 1987, experts believed autism affected 2 to 5 of every 10,000 children, he said.
Over the course of his son's life, that estimate has been revised to 1 in 2,000, then 1 in 1,000, then 1 in 150. And now, 1 in 88.
"You can say it's more children being diagnosed. You can call it a tsunami or an epidemic, but nobody is really questioning that the CDC is wrong in their prevalence rate," said Debbaudt, a Florida private investigator, whose son's diagnosis prompted him to form a company that specializes in training on autism.
"That's going to stress our social infrastructure, so that will include contacts with law enforcement, first responders, 911 telecommunication, etc.," said Debbaudt.
Autism spectrum disorders now affect more children than diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or Down syndrome – combined, according to AutismSpeaks.org, the nation's largest autism science and advocacy organization.
It's a neurological intellectual disability that impairs how people gather and process information, causing them problems in social skills and communication. People who have been diagnosed with a disorder on the spectrum of autism can range from those who are unable to speak and will always need a caregiver to those who are intellectually gifted.
Do Police Need More Training?
As early as 2001, an article published in FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin said that people with developmental disabilities have up to seven times more contact with law enforcement officers than others.
In the case of kids with autism, many have a tendency to wander, which is a leading cause of death by drowning or traffic deaths, Debbaudt said. But autisic individuals also are often suspects in criminal investigations, in need of help because they've been in an accident or emergency, or have to interact with police because they are a victim or a witness to crime.
Urbandale Police Chief Ross McCarty said his department and the Johnston Police Department often train together and take a yearly course on how to deal with mentally ill or mentally disabled citizens. Although the departments' take more training in this area than they are required to, he said the officers haven't had specific training on autism.
Debbaudt's company trains police department's on how to deal effectively with people with autism. His website lists 25 field response tips for officers dealing with someone with autism.
They include keeping a safe distance from the person, keeping your voice low and calm and keeping your hands low, or waiting as much as 10 to 15 seconds for the person to respond.
But those tips and training aren't enough, Debbaudt said.
Educating Families and Autistic Children
"We can't leave it up to the police. Even if we train them for a month or a year, they would never have the ability to field diagnose someone with autism," Debbaudt said.
"We also need to help our families educate our young people for adulthood. We can help young people to learn about what to do when they come in contact with the police," Debbaudt said.
The problem with simply trying to train officers on dealing with autistic citizens, said Des Moines area autism expert Steve Muller, is that "Many of these individuals that don't wear a letter on their sweater that says 'Hi, I have autism'."
Muller, executive director of The Homestead, a Des Moines-area center that provides services for teens and young adults with autism, urges parents to contact police, emergency responders, and firefighters in their town, in advance, to let them know there is a person with autism living in the house.
In Ottawa, Canada, police have computerized records of people with autism. Families can put decals with the autism ribbon symbol on their cars and their windows, said Debbaudt. There are specialized vehicle license plates that are connected to a computer registry of disabled people that police officers can instantly access from their police car.
People with autism, particularly those who are lower-functioning, can have temporary tatoos, wear a medic alert bracelet, or shoe tags.
The best solutions come from a community approach, where police, firefighters, city officials and other first-responders work with parents of autistic children and experts on the disorder, said Debbaudt, who does that kind of community training.
Preparedness will never completely prevent negative encounters. Johnston Police spokesman Lt. Lynn Aswegan said the police department has had a voluntary computer registry of Johnston residents with disabilities for several years.
However, the boy arrested at the movie theater lived in Urbandale.
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.