With mock traffic stops, police instruct people with autism on what to do if pulled over
Groton ― First in a line of several cars in the Fitch High School parking lot on a rainy morning, a driver was in what would otherwise be an odd circumstance: He was waiting for a cop to pull him over.
But he and about a dozen others showed up Saturday specifically for that reason.
Southern Connecticut State University’s Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders teamed up with police departments to hold mock traffic stops for autistic people.
“We know our individuals with autism benefit not just to see something happen but to actually practice, and of course traffic stops make us all nervous,” said Kari Sassu, director of strategic initiatives for the center. But on top of that, she noted that people on the spectrum may have sensory issues associated with lights or sirens, or fear having broken a rule.
Southern held this kind of event on campus last fall and this spring, but Saturday was the first time the center held it elsewhere in Connecticut.
After going through a mock stop and pulling over again to complete a brief survey, Derek Regenauer, 25, said he thought it went well, and that he came because he wanted to have a better understanding of what to do if he got pulled over. His mother, Kara Regenauer, said they had gone to one of the events at Southern but “repetition is good.”
Trying to build confidence
The event Saturday was split into two sessions. Before taking the wheel, each group sat in the school library for introductions and a video.
“What you’re going to experience today is somewhat stressful for people, right? People don’t like to get pulled over by police,” Town of Groton Police Chief Louis J. Fusaro said, “but we have a duty to keep the roads safe.”
Waterford Police Chief Marc Balestracci said hopefully participants would leave with the confidence that if they ever get pulled over, their interaction with police will go well.
Their departments held the event along with the Center for Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders, SCSU’s police department, Groton Public Schools, and the nonprofit Inclusion A Sylvestre Foundation. They also had officers from the Ledyard, Stonington and New London police departments helping with traffic stops.
While waiting for the second session to start, Noank resident Sam Chomet, 30, said his father heard about the event from an article in The Day and brought it to his attention. Paul Chomet said he thinks it’s always good to get a different perspective and understand what the police are looking at.
How the program got started
Sassu said people within the Center for Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders were having a discussion about the higher likelihood that people with autism have of interacting with the police, compared to neurotypical people. And having a teenager with autism, the issue is personal for her.
The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association and Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles had in January 2020 launched the Blue Envelope program for autistic drivers. Drivers on the autism spectrum are given a blue envelope ― available at DMV locations, police stations and driving schools ― in which to keep their license, registration and insurance.
On one side of the envelope are instructions for what the driver should do if pulled over, starting with telling the officer, “I have a blue envelope.”
The other side has information for police, advising them that individuals may display repetitive body movements, have unusual eye contact, or show signs of high anxiety, especially from bright lights and radio noises.
“From a law enforcement perspective, it is effective for us, because that clues the officer in. It shapes their interactions,” Fusaro said. Joseph Dooley, recently retired chief of SCSU’s police department, added that even if an officer in another state isn’t aware of the program, the wording explains it.
But Sassu noted that since the pandemic hit not long after the program launched, a lot of people aren’t aware of it. She reached out to Dooley to put together the mock traffic stop program.
Sassu said her go-to person has been Andrew Arboe, who is autistic and founded Driving with Autism, an online training program designed to help autistic people get their driver’s licenses.
Arboe said he started this because a lot of the resources on driving and autism are nonexistent, and that he likes to go over driver empowerment and what works for everyone.
He portrays a driver being pulled over in the SCSU training video but said he hasn’t been pulled over in real life, and he doesn’t know how he would react if he were.
Dooley said another mock traffic stop event is being planned for the Hartford area in the spring.