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Drawing on personal experience as well as training, officer helps those with autism

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Groton — When city police Officer Bobby Harris became a certified instructor with the Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition last month, it was a first for Connecticut and required nearly two months of training.

But it took far longer than that — almost two decades — for Harris to hone the skills he’ll use when teaching others how to recognize and approach those with autism spectrum disorder.

“My son has autism,” the 53-year-old explained Tuesday. “If you don’t have a child with special needs, you really don’t understand. They’re looked upon as being different — and they are in some ways — but they’re shunned by the general public.”

For 19 years, Harris has been fighting for his son: fighting to understand what triggers him and calms him down, fighting to get him into schools that are equipped to educate him, fighting to explain to community members why they shouldn’t be so judgmental.

Since he joined the Groton City force in 2008 — he first served 20 years with the U.S. Navy — he also has been showing his colleagues how to respond to a person who may have special needs.

It’s not uncommon, Harris said, for people on the autistic spectrum to simply walk away from an agitating situation — something officers may take as a blatant disregard of commands rather than a coping mechanism. Others who are on the spectrum may engage in the practice of “stimming,” or self-stimulatory behavior that can include hand flapping or repetition of words.

Once, Harris responded to a home where an autistic child, disciplined by his parents, became inconsolable and began destroying his room. Harris said he went into the room and did what he would with his own son: he gave the child physical space and asked him why he was upset.

“I remember the mom said, ‘Wow, no cop, no one has ever really talked to my child,’” Harris said. “‘They have always talked down to him.’”

Last month, when a Groton City sergeant took it upon himself to locate and calm down a missing autistic adult — no handcuffs or use of force necessary — Harris saw that his efforts had paid off.

“These kids can be violent,” Harris acknowledged, “and you’ve still gotta do your job. But recognize that he may have special needs. If he walks away, don’t automatically go for your Taser. Have more patience.”

Harris joined the Groton City force around the same time ALEC, the Massachusetts-based autism coalition, was ramping up its training efforts. According to its website, ALEC has trained almost 25,000 first responders in Massachusetts and almost 11,000 others nationwide. All of Groton City's police officers and firefighters have gone through the training.

Like Harris, all ALEC-certified instructors have direct knowledge of an autism spectrum disorder through a family member. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in every 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder.

Harris said he expects to start training other departments beginning in May. He’s aiming for two sessions per month, but may do more if his schedule allows for it.

Harris didn’t want to make a fuss about being the only ALEC-certified instructor in the state.

“I just want to be an advocate, not some kind of superstar,” he said. “If I get call from an officer anywhere in the state of Connecticut ... I will wake up at any time of the night or even while I’m on vacation because I know at the other end, there’s a child in need.”

Once a school resource officer in the city, Harris still gets calls from school officials. Parents call for help, and sometimes call again. Military members, new to town, hear that Harris can help and seek him out.

“I get great satisfaction in helping others because years ago, I didn’t know where to turn,” he said. “I didn’t have anybody. I was winging it with my (late) wife.”

But you don’t have to be a certified expert to help out, Harris said — you can simply be more conscientious.

“You may not think they can hear you,” Harris said of those on the spectrum. “My son, he can be looking off into space, snapping his fingers, doing what he does, but he can hear everything you’re saying, especially if it’s about him.

“People say things that are nasty,” Harris continued. “He’ll say, ‘Dad, did you hear what they said about me?’ And every time I’ll say, ‘You are a handsome, beautiful child that can offer a lot to society, but some people are not going to understand you. It doesn’t make you bad. It just makes you a little different.’”


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