Back in the early 2000’s, the CDC reported 1 in 150 children had ASD (1)—autism spectrum disorder. Fast forward to 2018, the numbers increased to 1 in 54 children with autism. Now, as more data is gathered and more parents/ caretakers are aware of the signs, the latest data shows that 1 in 44 children are diagnosed with ASD.
The jump in numbers, especially considering the short span of time, can be due to a variety of reasons. But at the end of the day, what this means for us is that officers will be interacting with ASD individuals if they know it or not. As instructors, it is our job to ensure officers are aware of the signs and equipped with the proper communication skills so interactions with ASD individuals go as smooth as possible for everyone involved.
As such, autism training needs to be extensive, understood and reviewed often. What many don’t realize is that 40% of individuals with ASD are nonverbal (2)—another communication challenge that officers must overcome. Or that 31% of children with ASD have an intellectual disability that creates significant challenges in daily function (2). So even if your department currently engages in autism training, does it cover the entire range of autistic disabilities and communication differences?
The best way to ensure complete, proper training is to utilize nationally-certified training curriculum. For example, VirTra’s Training and Curriculum department worked with the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) to create our certified “Autism Awareness” curriculum. Having SARRC as a partner provided us with valuable insight into autism, which we transfer to officers by teaching how to recognize the signs, communication strategies and how to reduce confusion and risk. This is accomplished through a combination of presentations, handbooks, videos and practice scenarios—as delivered by the instructor—for well-rounded training.
Training your officers about autism is not only important—it is expected. Communities have voiced their concerns and expectations and it is our job to fulfill them. One great example of this is the West Jordan Police Department, which underwent autism training consisting of VirTra’s curriculum and discussions with community members. After, Chief Ken Wallentine stated: “We’re astonished at the positive comments from our officers. They feel much better prepared to handle calls for service involving persons with autism and to practice empathy in an effective way.”
Engaging in autism training has a ripple effect that helps your officers, who in turn, help their communities. April is Autism Awareness Month, making it no better time to get started. Help us spread awareness and better training by sharing our message.
This article was originally published in IADLEST April 2022 Newsletter
Imagine you are training in an immersive law enforcement simulator. The screens darken, then light up with a desert scene as the dispatch relays information on the call you are responding to. Pedestrians give you further information about the event, then point you towards a man sitting on a ledge. It becomes clear: this is a suicide call and you need to carefully persuade the man to seek help, not jump.
This is a difficult situation, but a necessary one to train for, as any officer can be called to prevent suicide. But as important as the training topic is, the method of training is just as important. For officers who train with VirTra’s systems, the scenario will unfold based on the officer’s actions and words, creating real-life training designed to benefit both officers and their communities. Officers can train in the same scenario multiple times, trying new de-escalation tactics or certain phrases, then see how the situation plays out. Does an action cause the man to comply, lash out or jump? Which verbiage best comes into play here? Instructors watch over the trainees and, depending on the officer’s choices, they choose the applicable branch in the situation and thus create a new ending.
The simulator itself is an incredible training tool, but what about combining the classroom and the simulator? VirTra created the V-VICTA® program, which is a series of nationally-certified curriculum that is first taught in the classroom then practiced in the simulator. This all-in-one training solution instills proper training and knowledge transfer, thus helping officers remember their training in the field and utilize it to help those around them.
For example, one V-VICTA curriculum is “Autism Awareness.” This material teaches officers how to identify possible autistic behaviors and the best ways to interact with the subject. Officers who aren’t taught how to recognize and react accordingly to these behaviors could put the subject or themselves at risk. And, according to data from the CDC, 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with autism, making it extremely likely that every field officer will interact with someone on the spectrum. To improve safety for officers and every member of their community, they must first know how to best interact with every member of the community.
Officer training is complex, but it is always centered around safety—for subjects, bystanders, partners and oneself. To learn more about VirTra’s V-VICTA training curriculum, or to try a training simulator at an upcoming trade show, contact a VirTra specialist.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As science discovers more about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it becomes clearer how to communicate with autistic individuals. Because of a lack of knowledge of their unique communication needs, there have been unfortunate events in the past involving police officers and the autistic community. To reduce these incidents and ensure trust between the autistic community and law enforcement, steps have been taken to educate officers.
Law enforcement agencies around the United States are beginning to take advantage of various educational resources to understand ASD. One of the methods is through VirTra’s V-VICTA™ curriculum titled “Autism Awareness.” This 2-hour course — a collaboration between VirTra and Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) — includes scenarios and video walkthroughs. The goal is teaching law enforcement officers how to recognize the signs of autism and communicate appropriately.
An example of a successful approach was done by Utah Attorney General’s Office (UAG), who inspired Utah agencies to adopt the Autism Awareness training program. They have recently won the Best of State award for their Virtual Reality Training Center and the lessons officers learn from it – from Autism Awareness to de-escalation and use-of-force tactics. The framed award is pictured below.
Additionally, in September 2021, UAG Sean Reyes was awarded with the First Annual Autism Award for their efforts in making the community a safer place. As its name suggests, it was the first award of its kind and was awarded to UAG due to the impact they have made in educating law enforcement members about autism.
Some of the tips that officers can learn through VirTra’s Autism Awareness coursework includes recognizing the signs, making sure communication is clear and ensuring the person is comfortable during the encounter. It is no question that law enforcement around the country want to create a good relationship with the public, including those with special needs. Using the coursework’s tests, training manual, presentations and more, the goal is to maintain trust with the community.
To learn more about how VirTra can help law enforcement better understand ASD, contact a product specialist.
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 www.virtra.com. To watch and listen to the podcast referenced earlier in this story, visit The Autism ADHD Podcast.
VirTra believes that training should be as effective as it is realistic. When trainees feel the real-life pressures of a high-stakes scenario, practice maneuvering through difficult de-escalation conversations or learn proper judgmental use of force in training, it increases their abilities and skill transfer to the field.
Creating powerful training scenarios and curriculum is no easy feat, so VirTra often turns to experts in their respective fields. For example, in honor of Autism Awareness Month, VirTra spent two years collaborating with the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) to create and launch our progressive Autism Awareness curriculum.
By partnering with the experts at SARRC, VirTra was able to create curriculum that helps officers to recognize the signs of autism and to develop skills and strategies for improving interaction while minimizing risk to both the officer and individual. Utilizing SARRC’s knowledge and first-hand experience was critical in creating a powerful curriculum that could benefit officers nationwide.
As touched on before, VirTra also works with industry professionals to create relevant curriculum that isn’t often widely taught. In the case of our autism awareness curriculum, it was recently discovered that approximately 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which suggests that 50,000 teens with ASD are transitioning into adulthood each year. This significantly increases the likelihood of interaction between law enforcement and autistic individuals, making it especially critical for officers to receive this training.
Yet, autism training is not currently widely taught, with only 45% of officers surveyed said they received training on interacting with autistic individuals. It is VirTra and SARRC’s goal to increase this number, to have more officers trained on the topic of autism and to get law enforcement training with nationally-certified curriculum and real-life scenarios.
To learn more about our autism awareness curriculum, and other curriculum formed with industry experts, contact a VirTra specialist.
Published by William H. Fowlke. The downloadable document can be found here.
We have all seen news reports or viewed body cam video of officers trying to detain or arrest individuals who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). When things go bad the incident is often followed by the finger pointing of 20/20 hindsight. You may even have found yourself saying, “boy that doesn’t look good” or “what was that officer thinking?” On the other hand, we know of officers coming to the rescue of children with ASD who were lost, having an emotional meltdown, or difficulty dealing with a world that is frightening. What makes the difference between the negative and positive outcomes?
In the cases that go bad officers may not realize they are dealing with individuals who have ASD. They confused the individual’s “odd behavior” with drug abuse, intoxication, or deceptive criminal behavior. Chances are that had these officers been trained to recognize ASD behaviors the outcome would have been dramatically different with a positive ending.
One in 54 children is diagnosed with ASD in the United States. Utah has the second-highest population of individuals with ASD. There are approximately 15,000 children and 8,000 adults who are on the spectrum in Utah. There is much speculation why, but the research is inconclusive. In other words, we do not know why there is such a high number of individuals in Utah who have ASD.
In response to the need to train law enforcement officers to recognize ASD behaviors the Utah Attorney General’s VirTra Training Center is offering Autism Awareness Training for First Responders. The program was developed by VirTra® in collaboration with the South West Autism Resource and Research Center, the Autism Council of Utah, and the Utah Attorney General’s Autism Advisory Board.
Utah’s Governor and legislature have also responded to the need for more police training for this special population. Governor Cox signed H.B. 162 Peace Officer Training Amendments and H.B. 334 Special Needs Training for Law Enforcement. These bills require Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) to include 16 hours of training on ASD and other mental illnesses during an agency’s yearly 40-hour in-service training requirement. These bills specifically outline that officers and deputies have training in intervention responses to ASD and other mental health issues.
The training provided by the Attorney General’s Training Center will qualify for some of the new legislative requirements. The program includes a multimedia presentation, interactive virtual reality scenarios, classroom instruction, review of officer body cam video, and in person discussions with leaders and volunteers representing Utah’s Autism community. The objectives for the program are to aid officers to identify ASD behaviors and provide tools for a positive interaction. The training is not designed to teach officers how to diagnose individuals with ASD. The training is delivered at no-cost to agencies and qualifies for International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) certification.
Ken Wallentine, Chief of Police for West Jordan Police Department said this about his department’s training experience at the Attorney General’s training center:
“In the summer of 2020, the West Jordan Police Department partnered with the Utah Attorney General training center to deliver a unique new multidisciplinary training experience, created in conjunction with VirTra and the Autism Council of Utah. Every West Jordan PD School Resource Officer and DARE Officer completed the training in August 2020, before the new school year began.
The training experience, combining virtual reality scenarios in the VirTra 300® with small group discussions with officers and community members with live autism experiences, was overwhelmingly successful. Acting on the encouragement of the first officers, the autism training experience was incorporated into the West Jordan PD quarterly in-service training for all officers.
We’re astonished at the positive comments from our officers. They feel much better prepared to handle calls for service involving persons with autism and to practice empathy in an effective way. We’re grateful for the partnership with the Attorney General training center and VirTra, along with members of the Utah Council on Autism in facilitating this vital training experience.”
Calleen Kenney, President of the Autism Counsel of Utah had this to say about her experience working with police officers:
“As a volunteer, I have really enjoyed helping members of our law enforcement and first responder communities learn more about the autism community! I am so impressed with their willingness to share experiences and ask questions. As a caregiver, knowing that my family will be a little more supported in times of crises is invaluable. I really think this training will save and change lives. I truly appreciate all the departments, teams and individuals that are involved and participating in this training. I believe that every officer going into the field needs to understand how high the possibilities are that they will encounter an individual with autism and to be more prepared to appropriately handle and support the situation.”
You can schedule Autism Awareness Training for First Responders for members of your department by contacting Scott Carver at 385-867-9887 / email@example.com or Will Fowlke at 801-608-5356 / firstname.lastname@example.org. Be safe and be prepared for the unexpected.
William H. Fowlke
Utah Attorney General’s Training Center
According to the CDC, 1 in 53 people in the United States are diagnosed with autism. As such, law enforcement officers, who interact with countless individuals, are certain to come into contact with a person on the autism spectrum at some point during their career. Unfortunately, there are instances that prove not every agency is equipped and educated in terms of communicating efficiently with people on the spectrum.
Officers are not doctors, and therefore, they should never be expected to diagnose any subject. However, there are signs to be aware of that may signal that the officer is interacting with an autistic person. Failure to recognize these signs has led to officers mistaking autistic behaviors for criminal ones, including resistance or even drug use. Unfortunate cases have happened where autistic individuals have been unnecessarily traumatized and left with minor injuries because an officer was unable to tell the difference between their autism and misleading behaviors.
Due to an apparent lack of knowledge about the condition, partnered with the fact that autism is prevalent in society, VirTra and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) worked together to create a certified virtual Autism Awareness course for law enforcement. Within a simulator displaying cutting-edge technology and graphics, officers can verbally interact with an on-screen subject who displays signs of autism in these autism awareness scenarios. With numerous branching options to resolution and a thorough virtual walkthrough of what autism is, officers will enhance their skills and help keep the autism community safer.
Now, a year since the course has made its debut in VirTra’s V-VICTA™ lineup, the course has been installed on simulators around the country and has attracted praise from experts. Just recently, Holly Blanc Moses, host of The Autism ADHD Podcast, graciously invited Lon Bartel and Daniel Openden to guest on a recent episode. Bartel, VirTra’s Director of Training & Curriculum, along with Openden, CEO of SARRC, were the creators and masterminds behind the Autism Awareness curriculum project and are always eager to further educate law enforcement as well as the public.
Just a few of the many tips shared by all three experts during the discussion include:
• If possible, find out if there are specific communication needs and challenges before the encounter. This could be communicated to the officer by a parent, sibling, friend, etc.
• Turn off the lights on the patrol car and turning down the volume on your radio, as they might cause a sensory overload.
• Try to find an area to communicate where it is quiet and there are less people.
• Build rapport with community members with autism, including their parents and guardians.
To learn more about Autism Awareness and how to obtain this course and various other certified curriculum, click here.
As you may be aware, IADLEST offers a National Certification Program (NCP), which serves as a standard for police training. As such, the program sets a higher standard of training for training companies—such as VirTra—and vendors to provide quality education and training content to our law enforcement nationwide.
NCP certification standards meet and often exceed individual State certification requirements, ensuring training is accepted by all participating POST organizations for training credit.
For this reason and more, VirTra has been submitting V-VICTA™—Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy—curriculum for NCP certification. VirTra is currently the only simulator company that offers certified curriculum for officers, which comes free with every law enforcement simulator.
With the NCP seal proudly displayed on the front of each coursework, agencies know they are provided with content that has gone through a rigorous approval process and meets most POST standards.
In addition to providing quality training to officers, V-VICTA certified curriculum also saves agencies time and money. Think about how many department resources are spent reviewing training, the time and money required to approve a single hour of curriculum.
Or consider the millions of dollars cities spend defending themselves or settling lawsuits due to lack of training and police wrongdoings. Litigation fees, settlement fees and court-ordered payments can all be minimized with officers who are properly and adequately trained. Officers trained to react appropriately to a variety of situations are far less likely to find themselves involved in lawsuits due to alleged wrongdoing.
However, creating these coursework materials is no easy task. When preparing to submit materials for certification, VirTra must meet a series of general requirements, such as: extensive research, citations, having correct knowledge retention format, comprehensive testing materials, scoring rubric, pre-test, post-test, class evaluation forms and much more.
Once submitted, the curriculum is thoroughly reviewed and vetted by professionals in the field. Professionals include some with Masters degrees in Instructional Design and Education Technology and years of real-world experience. Curriculum is then returned in a few weeks with any edits, comments and final approval or rejection. With approval comes a two-year certification and promise to our clients with the highest quality training.
To date, VirTra has submitted 17 V-VICTA courses through NCP with a total of 60+ hours. Our most recent certified curriculum was Autism Awareness, a combination of classroom materials and interactive scenarios designed to help officers distinguish autistic behavior from those that mimic others, such as indicators for drug/alcohol use or deceptive behavior.
This curriculum was co-created through a partnership with SARRC—Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center—and utilizes their industry insight and expertise. Together, this partnership resulted in curriculum that helps mitigate the difficulties law enforcement face when encountering people who may be on the spectrum.
Other critical curriculum created for law enforcement include: Active Threat/Active Killer, Contact and Cover Concepts, High-Risk Vehicle Stop, Mental Illness for Contact Professionals, Tourniquet Application Under Threat and more. Each of these curricula are NCP certified, ensuring the highest quality for agencies that implement this curriculum into their training sessions.
Instructors can train well, knowing all content is up-to-date, certified and designed for maximum skill transfer. To learn more about VirTra’s NCP-approved curriculum, please contact a specialist.
Although the presentation of autism varies significantly among individuals, it affects every age group and occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
ASD—Autism Spectrum Disorder— is a pervasive developmental disorder that encompasses autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder and pervasive developmental disorder—not otherwise specified. Formerly, each disorder had its own distinct criteria. Now only one set of criteria exists with all three under the single diagnosis.
As such, ASD is characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.
Estimates suggest that 50,000 teens with ASD transition into adulthood each year. This is why VirTra is addressing autism in its latest V-VICTA™—VirTra –Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy— curriculum launch due to the difficulties law enforcement face when encountering people who may be on the autism spectrum.
According to a 2017 study from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University, an estimated one in five teenagers with autism was stopped and questioned by the police before age 21, and 5 percent were arrested. And according to research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, people with disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum, are five times more likely to be incarcerated than people in the general population, and “civilian injuries and fatalities during police interactions are disproportionately common among this population.”
To curb these potential negative encounters between law enforcement and individuals on the autism spectrum, VirTra has committed their most recent efforts to provide meaningful, realistic and timely education to law enforcement through its new autism curriculum.
To ensure police officers are equipped with the right skills to effectively and safely communicate with those with ASD, VirTra has teamed up with Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC). Through SARRC’s global expertise in the area of autism, VirTra was able to establish comprehensive coursework and a series of simulator scenarios to assist law enforcement in learning the proper communication tactics.
While VirTra normally uses professional actors when filming scenarios, for this curriculum, VirTra made a deliberate and thoughtful decision to hire adults and teens with an autism diagnosis to represent the many different scenarios.
Law enforcement members who participate in this course will receive lesson plans, test and pre-tests. They will be walked through each lesson via an on-screen instructor and go through scenarios designed to teach officers how to properly talk through situations. The autism scenarios are not simply “shoot-don’t-shoot” situations; rather, the scenarios are made to enhance verbal skills and awareness of what the presentation of ASD may look like while working in the field.
With a growing number of diagnoses, as well as more teens transitioning to adulthood each year, there is a higher chance officers will encounter a person on the spectrum. To avoid unnecessary trauma of those with ASD and scrutiny of your agency, VirTra and SARRC firmly believe extensive training and education is the right path.
To receive the autism curriculum as well as any other new V-VICTA curriculum, your department must be a current VirTra law enforcement customer with an annual service agreement. For those wishing to set up an annual service agreement or re-establishing an outdated one, contact a VirTra specialist.