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Discovery of Avante Oquendo's body in NYC emphasizes autism training for police

After an exhaustive search and rescue effort by NYPD officials, body parts of missing Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old autistic boy who walked away from his school in Queens, NY, in October 2013, were found Jan. 16, 2014.
After an exhaustive search and rescue effort by NYPD officials, body parts of missing Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old autistic boy who walked away from his school in Queens, NY, in October 2013, were found Jan. 16, 2014.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Since October 2013, the nation --the world-- watched with bated breath as the search for a non-verbal autistic boy, Avonte Oquendo, went without successful results. There were would-be sightings called in to the New York City Police Department (NYPD); slightly more than 1000 tips were submitted to the NYPD, to no avail.

With deep-rooted hopes he would be found, Avonte's family waited patiently. Numerous police actions, search/rescue efforts, and personnel exhibited the NYPD's vast stores of capability. Despite all expended efforts and avenues of approach traversed, Avonte would not be saved.

Avonte possessed an affinity for the subway system --the world's largest in NYC-- so law enforcement authorities beset their focus on the subway venue, among others. Mobile units blasted audio messages, beckoning Avonte in attempts to draw his attention to police authorities and search and rescue personnel, to no avail.

During the massive search for Avonte, concentration swayed back and forth, from the seeming ease which he was enabled to elope, to the un-heeding eyes of his teachers among whom Avonte was one of their charges. Moreover, the school from which Avonte eloped did have a school resource officer (SRO) on duty. Reports circulated that this police officer was the last person to physically lay eyes upon Avonte before his exodus from school grounds.

Much speculation has been raised regarding the myopic training and education as it relates to individuals with autism and police interactions. The unique particulars pertaining to understanding autism can provide vast information as it relates to police recognizing and properly handling citizens who are diagnosed with autism.

Predominantly, an autistic individual who does not respond to police commands does not necessarily mean they are "resisting" police authority. Simply, some autistic individuals lack the ability to speak and/or conceptualize the very purpose of law enforcement officials.

Non-verbal autistic individuals often have communication values belied in American Sign Language (ASL). This factor lends itself to the notion that law enforcement agencies may need to consider police officers equipped to communicate via ASL.

Notwithstanding the minimal knowledge base we have as it pertains to autism, several autism-oriented organizations have put together informational pieces in the form of DVD- and literature-based educational tools. These tools explain, in a pared down fashion, the fundamental aspects of autism and variations among those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

From the very word "spectrum", one can infer some variation. Implicitly, autism spectrum disorder has in its definition and diagnosis a range of differences. Yet, the basics are prevalent: repetitious behavioral traits such as tapping fingers on surfaces; yelping and humming in patterns; even self-injurious behaviors.

Here in Tampa Bay, and among the many research institutions encompassing the University of South Florida, is the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD). CARD has interviewed Tampa Bay-area law enforcement officers regarding their experiences, if any, with autistic individuals. Moreover, CARD queried the knowledge base of police officers it interviewed. With respect to autism, many had a cursory idea of autism.

As one of the aforementioned police officers involved in the CARD study (and the father of a non-verbal autistic daughter), this Examiner contributed personal information towards the study's objectives: autistic children have no concept of peril, so water is a common factor as it relates to autistic children drowning; synonymously, traffic flow dangers do not register upon the minds of autistic individuals, often resulting in severe injury or fatality; autistic individuals can have a component of "self-injury" and thus are perceived as violent and hostile. Factually, autistic children have no "intent" to injure another.

Myriad factors exist. Delving deeper into the largely-misunderstood world of autism is paramount, especially for law enforcement practitioners who are on the front-lines of society and thus in positions to encounter a citizen with autism.

At the outset, CARD pooled its data field and interviewed subjects' (cops) responses and published tri-fold full-color pamphlets solely for law enforcement officers to have as a guide while they engaged in their police duties.


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