SAPD officers learn to interact with people who have autism

By Bill Barajas - Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - The San Antonio Police Department is preparing its officers to handle any and every situation. The academy recently focused on what to look for when dealing with someone who has autism.

"With this class, it goes, 'OK, these are the symptoms. This is a medical issue that we need to deal with, and this is how I approach it,'" Cadet Jonathon Shirtliff said.

The officers took part in crisis intervention training. The 40-hour course has been given to every single cadet for the last eight years. It is also made available to officers who are already on the force.

"I think its going to impact cadets in a very positive way. It's important to know, especially with kids, what you can do to help them, because kids might not know what's going on with them. As an officer, you need to recognize what you can do for them to make their lives a little better," Cadet Ariel Hernandez said.

The need for the training was highlighted this week when a 10-year-old with autism was handcuffed and put into the back of a patrol car. John Haygood was arrested for kicking a paraprofessional. His mother blamed his behavior on autism and said she was fed up with the lack of services to help handle her son.

"I think its critical for police, because if they are called out for a crisis situation, what they do or don't do can either escalate or de-escalate the situation," said Sandra Jacobs, autism education specialist at Any Baby Can.

The lesson for police is that not every call for service involves putting the bad guys behind bars. It calls for connecting with those who are in need.

"We have to learn the penal code. We have to learn traffic. We learn to shoot a firearm and drive. This is very important, too. I think we underestimate how important it is, recognize, you know, mental illnesses and mental health issues. It's something, in a city like San Antonio, that's going to be very common," Hernandez said.

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