Groton City first responders learn to ID those on autistic spectrum

Groton — Think about the last time you walked into a mall.

Now imagine all of the lights and sounds amplified so much, you cover your ears and cry in response.

That’s what an ordinary shopping experience can be like for a person on the autism spectrum. It’s also one of the biggest takeaways state Sen. Heather Somers got from an Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition, or ALEC, training she attended in Groton City earlier this month.

“I thought the training was excellent,” Somers said, explaining while she wouldn’t want to mandate it in these tough financial times, she would like to see the region pool its resources to host more sessions in the future.

“I think every legislator should sit in on it,” she added. “It gives you a completely different perspective.”

According to city police Chief Mike Spellman, the municipality is now the first in the region to have all of its officers and firefighters trained by ALEC.

In short, first responders who attended the training learned from Bill Cannata, a Massachusetts fire captain, the different ways people affected by autism can behave. During a typical traffic stop, for example, the bright lights of a cruiser could agitate a person who’s on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. Some on the spectrum might engage in the practice of “stimming,” or self-stimulatory behavior that can include hand flapping or repetition of words, when they’re upset. Others may simply repeat back anything a first responder says.

The responders then learned the best way to handle such situations, which in general is by taking a gentle, verbal approach rather than yelling or trying to restrain the person. They also received tips on how to question someone who’s on the spectrum.

The instruction is important, Spellman said, because the occurrence of autism in the United States has risen over the years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in every 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder.

“If (the prevalence) becomes 1 in 50, these officers have been exposed early,” Spellman said. “They’ll be better prepared.”

The city police force additionally plans to send one of its own, Officer Bobby Harris, to become an ALEC-certified trainer beginning early next year. To qualify, a first responder must have a child on the spectrum, which Harris does.

Once he’s certified, Spellman said, Harris will be able to train first responders across the region.

“We’ve never been shy about loaning our guys out and we definitely won’t be here,” Spellman said.

During the training earlier this month, firefighters and officers also heard from Crystal Wilcox, a Pawcatuck mom whose son, Billy, is on the autistic spectrum.

She told them a story from several years ago, when her son had a meltdown in their driveway after he dropped some videos. The neighbors, concerned about his yelling, called the cops.

“So everything’s settling down when I look up and there’s a cop car flying down the street,” Wilcox recalled. “Billy sees it and he goes from 0 to 10. He thinks they’re coming to take him away. He’s crying and whatnot. He thinks I called them.”

The officer, unsure what was going on, made things worse, she said. Worse, the interaction instilled in Billy a fear of police — something that could be problematic if he one day wanders off and needs an officer’s help.

Wilcox said she was thrilled to help the first responders understand why the training is important, especially given that her son goes to The Arc of New London County in Groton.

“This could benefit my son plus hundreds of other kids,” she said. “As a parent, it gives you more peace of mind.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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