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Police using new blue envelopes to improve communication with drivers on autism spectrum

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Local police departments are helping to improve communication between officers and drivers with autism spectrum disorder by using new blue envelopes that contain helpful information and tips.

Through a new law that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, the blue envelopes are being distributed at DMV offices, local police departments, driving schools and autism advocacy groups. The envelopes, which are to be kept in vehicles with drivers on the spectrum, can hold the driver's insurance card, license and registration. They also contain a list of what the driver should expect when they're pulled over and how they should behave, as well as information for the officer about how a driver on the spectrum may react to being pulled over.

"It puts the police and the individual on the spectrum on a level playing field so they are able to communicate effectively and avoid unnecessary agitation and nervousness," said Leslie Macnab, executive director of Autism Services and Resources Connecticut.

Several local police departments now have the envelopes available for pickup in their lobbies, including New London, Groton town and city police departments, Connecticut State Police at Troops E in Montville and K in Colchester, and soon will be available at East Lyme and Waterford police departments.

According to Macnab, being pulled over can be a difficult experience for some people on the autism spectrum, triggering anxiety and nervousness.

"For a lot of folks on the autism spectrum that drive, social interaction can be very difficult," Macnab said. "Someone who has sensory stimulation issues may be agitated by flashing lights, or if a person comes up in a uniform with a stern voice, it could make them nervous and that may make certain behaviors come out."

Macnab said that nervousness can manifest in many different ways for a person on the spectrum, and some behaviors may include the person avoiding eye contact, slapping their hands or having repetitive speech patterns. Without the blue envelope, these behaviors may make an officer think the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol or may be hiding something, he said.

Having the envelope, however, "gives the police officer a heads-up that this person is on the autism spectrum and they need to take that into consideration," Macnab said.

"It also gives the person who is driving relief; they don't have to explain themselves," he said.

State police have made the envelopes available in most barracks already and hope they will help make interactions easier for people on the spectrum statewide.

"We understand that for someone on the autism spectrum, a traffic stop can be extremely overwhelming, especially since it was more than likely unexpected on the part of the operator," Trooper Josue J. Dorelus said. "This initiative is aimed at helping law enforcement officers respond to the challenges that some drivers may be facing."

The envelope also informs officers that a driver on the spectrum, in addition to a lack of eye contact and fidgeting, may exhibit signs of high anxiety due to the bright lights of a cruiser and noises from the officer's radio, may have trouble understanding police jargon and may take longer to respond to questions.

The envelopes also include a list of advice for drivers, first reminding them to keep their hands on the wheel until an officer tells them otherwise. Drivers are reminded that they likely will see flashing lights on the police vehicle and a flashlight used by the officer and hear sounds from the officer's radio.

The tip sheet suggests drivers tell officers "I have a blue envelope" as soon as the officer gets to their vehicle, and then instructs them to answer the officer's questions and stay still until the officer tells them they can get the envelope.

In a post on their Facebook page, Groton Town police said the envelopes will be available at their department and "will be particularly helpful to both parties during a motor vehicle stop."

The City of Groton Police Department also has the envelopes available at its dispatch window inside the station. The department also has new green envelopes available for the hearing impaired.

In New London, the blue envelopes are available at the police station and likely will be available at other locations around the city, such as the library and City Hall, according to Capt. Brian Wright.

Wright said that he is looking forward to implementing the new envelopes and supports them being used for other reasons, like Groton's green envelopes. "I believe it's a phenomenal program and idea behind it," he said, and he thinks the blue envelopes will help drivers and officers communicate better.

"A traffic stop for anyone is overwhelming because you get nervous and upset," Wright said. "With the chaos of flashing lights, loud radio calls and traffic going by, a driver on the autism spectrum may get overwhelmed and this allows a driver and officer to interact more easily and makes it a more comfortable situation for all those involved.

In a statement, the DMV said police officers will know what blue envelopes mean and drivers should feel comfortable handing over the envelopes.

Local police departments agreed and said their officers are aware of the new law.

"A person that is on the autism spectrum that hands a police officer this blue envelope can do so knowing that the officer has been trained to know what these envelopes mean and to adjust their interactions accordingly, ensuring the safety of all involved," Waterford police Chief Brett Mahoney said. The department soon will be placing the envelopes in its lobby.

East Lyme police also soon will have the envelopes available in their lobby. Chief Michael Finkelstein said he thinks the envelopes "will help increase understanding and ultimately lead to more effective interactions between police and those in our communities on the spectrum."

The DMV recommends that the envelopes be kept in the glove box or visor in the driver's vehicle or the vehicle they use.

The envelopes were designed by the DMV and the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association with the help of autism advocacy organizations.

t.hartz@theday.com

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