W.Va. Gov. signs bill to require training of officers responding to those with autism

Published: Apr. 22, 2021 at 1:26 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Several bills got the approval signature of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during a virtual ceremony Wednesday. One of them will require training for certain officers who are responding to those with disabilities.

“I just thought it was a step in the right direction with people with disabilities, specifically autism, that can help the communities and families have a little bit of relief as far as what might happen if they get into an emergency situation or they need assistance with their loved one,” Phenia Simmons, who has two sons that are on the autistic spectrum said.

The bill requires law enforcement and correctional officers to be trained on the best ways to interact with those with autism spectrum disorders.

“Some individuals with autism are non-verbal so there will probably be extensive training, I would hope, for those officers that would be visual,” Simmons said. “They use a lot of visual images and things to communicate with people with autism because, some of them never can speak but they certainly have things going on in their brain and receive information but they’re not always (able to) express it.”

Steve Slack also has two children with autism and trains police officers around the country on how to deal with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, 50 percent of people that are killed during encounters with police, have a disability. Unfortunately, many of them are not violent, they aren’t armed, there’s (just) a communication difference.”

The bill states that training can include at least three hours of instruction in procedures and techniques. Some of those techniques include interviewing, interrogating, getting statements, protecting rights, identifying a person with autism and ways to de-escalate a “potentially dangerous situation.”

“When you encounter somebody with autism or another disability, than that person might have a processing problem with communicating with the officer,” Slack said.

“If the officer asked a question (to someone with a disability) or gives them a command, especially in an intense situation, they might sort of freeze up as they’re trying to figure out what’s being said and that very well might translate to the officer that they’re being defiant, or resistant and that can lead to a (bad) situation,” Slack said.

During training, the bill states that instructors should always be present and include adults with autism and/or a parent or caretaker of an individual with autism.

“Research has shown us that interactions with law enforcement can be more dangerous for those with autism spectrum disorders,” Gov. Justice said. “Many times, these officers without training come to opinions that can lead them to suspect these people because their behavior may be something they can’t pick up on.”

“Now, our first responders will receive the proper training on how to recognize and interact with individuals with autism and other mental health conditions,” Gov. Justice said.

The West Virginia Autism Training Center Executive Director, Dr. Marc Ellison was a strong advocate for the passage of the bill.

“Senate Bill 634 is a really significant step in helping police officers and the community in general understand autism better and hopefully will prevent some really poor outcomes,” Dr. Ellison, Executive Director of Marshall University’s Autism Training Center said. “I’m aware of only two states that require autism-specific training for police officers. So once again, West Virginia, at least in the world of autism support, is kind of a pioneer in leading the way.”

“Thank you again, Governor, for your support in improving life quality for those in West Virginia living on the autism spectrum,” Dr. Ellison said.

The training and guidelines will be developed and conducted at the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University.

“We will grow from this and I’m so grateful to Dr. Ellison for really pushing through this law,” Slack said. “There’s one in four Americans that have a disability. Disability is a very normal part of life, unfortunately we have treated it as something unusual and something to be feared, so we really need to end the stigma associated with disability.”

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