Posted on Sep. 2, 2021 by Niki Nelson

Due to a string of unfortunate incidents where officers have mistaken autistic behaviors for criminal or deceptive actions, people with autism have been unnecessarily traumatized and even injured. After seeing this around the country and even in their own state, a partnership between Arizona companies VirTra and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) formed to bridge the gap of understanding.

With the expertise and knowledge of autism provided by SARRC, VirTra created educational scenarios designed to train officers on recognizing the signs. Owners of the VirTra simulator are able to utilize nationally-certified curriculum – “Autism Awareness” – and interact with an on-screen character—in this case, hired actors that are on the spectrum. During the training, officers only need to verbally communicate and never need to pull out a lethal or less-lethal weapon—thus learning how to properly interact with those on the spectrum.

Before getting to the interactive simulation portion, officers can go through a virtual walkthrough by an on-screen instructor – SARRC CEO Daniel Openden – to familiarize themselves with what autism is and how it affects people. The course is set up for written materials to be used as well, including lesson plans and tests designed to ensure officers and trainees are retaining the information in the classroom.

Lon Bartel, VirTra’s Director of Training & Curriculum, planned and designed this curriculum for more than a year before its official launch, and thanks to SARRC, it was able to become a reality in April 2020. It was tested and reviewed by a handful of agencies across the country who volunteered to see it in its unfinished form and offer critiques. One of the agencies that experienced it before launch is Jerome Police Department in Arizona. In a small town a few hours north of Phoenix, Chief Muma offered a testimony after reviewing the curriculum. “I really thought it was well developed,” said Muma during a video interview. “It brought forth something that I don’t think we’ve had in the field… It’s provided something that has been lacking in the industry for a long time.”

Outcomes of interactions between law enforcement and individuals on the spectrum came into focus after a problematic incident in Mesa, AZ – right in the backyard of both SARRC and VirTra – where an officer mistook the behaviors of an autistic teenager for drug use. The teenager was walking in a park, doing self-stimulation (also known as ‘stimming’) with a piece of string when a patrol officer approached. Due to the teen being on the spectrum, he was unable to communicate the way neurotypical individuals do, which the officer did not recognize and tackled the boy as he tried to walk away from the encounter, suffering injuries in turn.

This, along with several other similar issues across the country, further prompted VirTra and SARRC to launch the curriculum and have it nationally-certified in time for Autism Awareness Month in 2020.

“I can’t necessarily make every officer out there an expert,” said Lon Bartel when asked about the collaboration between SARRC and VirTra in a recent podcast. “But if I can create a dynamic of a certain situation where they can come across somebody on the spectrum and just immediately recognize that this might be the situation…I have the opportunity to change the outcome.” Bartel was accompanied by Openden during the podcast as well, explaining that part of safe communities includes allowing officers to think beyond the possibility of drugs or avoidant behavior, but consider the possibility the subject they are speaking with has autism.

Autism Awareness is part of VirTra’s Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy (V-VICTA™) and comes entirely free of charge to customers that have a VirTra simulator with an annual service plan. This means hundreds of law enforcement agencies nationwide have access – or will have access – to the Autism Awareness curriculum. This curriculum, as well as all of VirTra’s other coursework, has been nationally certified by IADLEST, passing their vigorous extensive review process.

For those interested in learning more about VirTra’s training technology and curriculum, which includes other topics such as mental illness and de-escalation, visit VirTra’s website at To watch and listen to the podcast referenced earlier in this story, visit The Autism ADHD Podcast.

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