Police seek to improve interactions with people on autism spectrum

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After a panel discussion followed by an interactive demonstration Monday night, families raising children with autism have a clearer understanding of how police are training to engage with people on the spectrum.

Wayne Smith has a part time job as a lube tech, is involved with the Special Olympics as a basketball and softball player and even drives himself into work. But a recent encounter with police left him feeling uneasy.

“Being pulled over by a police officer, I was nervous. I didn’t know what to do,” Smith said.

Like many on the autism spectrum, Wayne takes his time answering questions.

“If he’s asked a question and his eyes are shifty it’s not that he’s hiding anything,” said Stella Smith, Wayne’s mother.

That is something an officer might not know right away.

Monday night, parents asked how they should teach their kids when it comes to police confrontations.

There are different ways to interact with those that can’t communicate,” said Sgt. Shane Waites with Richmond Police Department. “We’re always dealing with individuals that are highly functioning. That’s easier to teach and work through. For those who can’t communicate, I never thought about that from a law enforcement standpoint.”

The discussion also covered de-escalation training for police and how to recognize when someone is differently abled.

Lights flashed and sirens wailed during the demonstration, putting families up close with sights and sounds that can be scary to some. For Wayne and others, the event served as a step toward mutual understanding that could ultimately save lives.

“We have to learn each other and how to treat each other so that’s what we’re trying to teach you,” said Smith.

JPS law passed in 2014, allowing people in Virginia with developmental disabilities to voluntarily indicate they’re themselves on their ID cards.

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