Posted on Apr. 5, 2022 by Niki Nelson

April is recognized as Autism Awareness Month. April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day. On this month, businesses, charities, parents and those with autism themselves take extra time to spread awareness of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Individuals on the autism spectrum have unique communication needs that not everyone understands, but awareness has been gradually spreading and allowing growth of acceptance.

Why it’s Important to Understand Autism

The most recent data from the CDC states that 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with ASD. With this large number combined with the amount of people a single officer interacts with on a daily basis, it is inevitable that they will make contact with someone on the spectrum. Autism can appear in all ethnicities, genders and socioeconomic groups, and some who have it display very few traits.

Autism is referred to as a “spectrum” due to the wide range of traits presented. Sometimes it is nearly impossible to tell someone was has autism because they behave and interact the way neurotypical people do. On the other side of the spectrum, some people may be non-verbal and have heavy reliance on a caregiver.

There have been incidents around the United States where officers mistook autistic behaviors for suspicious activity. Due to self-stimulation (called “stimming”) methods and unique ways of communicating, officers have reacted improperly and traumatized people with ASD. As part of being a police officer involves building community trust, meeting individual needs is crucial.

How To Build Trust with the Autism Community

Due to the frequency of which law enforcement officers may interact with people on the spectrum, VirTra worked with Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) to create certified curriculum for officers in 2020. This 2-hour coursework was certified at this time two years ago. It allows first responders to use their VirTra simulator to practice interactions with people on the spectrum. Titled “Autism Awareness,” it has been installed on hundreds of systems over the past two years.

This course is part of V-VICTA® – one of many NCP-certified courses that goes through rigorous review before becoming available to officers. Besides just giving written tips for how to handle interactions, officers have access to a walkthrough video featuring SARRC Director Daniel Openden. Scenarios also let officers practice interactions in branching scenarios filmed with actual people on the spectrum.

The Results of Awareness

Both VirTra and SARRC hope to see the number of officers using this curriculum grow. It does more than just paint police in a better light, but provides comfort to autistic individuals and their families. As mentioned, many current customers already have this coursework installed on their systems. We encourage you to get started if you haven’t already!

VirTra and SARRC were able to extensively test the Autism Awareness curriculum pre-launch. Current VirTra customers ran through the coursework, letting content developers know how it assisted them and what could be improved. One of which was Chief Muma of Jerome Police Department, who found great value in the training and was willing to provide it to his agency. The video below shows his testimony.

Contact us to learn more about how to utilize this curriculum in your department. We hope it will help awareness spread.

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