Autism Educator Shares Expertise With Police

January 30, 2013

After reading about a tense encounter between Staunton Police Officers and an autistic jogger this fall, Rachel Potter, director of Graduate Teacher Education (GTE) at Mary Baldwin University, reached out to local law enforcement to offer her unique insight into autistic behavior.

Potter teaches courses in special education and facilitates the Autism Certificate Program for GTE, and for several years, served as principal of the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center School in Charlottesville. As a mother of a child with autism and someone who has experience in the criminal justice arena, Potter brought a distinctive perspective to the training.

In November, city police detained a 22-year-old man with autism near Springhill Road who fit the description of a burglary suspect. Although the city police department followed existing policies correctly, Chief Jim Williams signed off on the autism training to benefit his officers.

“The participants seemed engaged; several asked questions. My impression was that they got something out of it,” Potter said, adding that she would like to assist other law enforcement agencies interested in training.

During the exercise last week — offered to officers and dispatchers on three days — Potter talked with police about the kinds of nonverbal behaviors people with autism can exhibit, traits that can seem elusive or aggressive but that are simply coping mechanisms. She described certain triggers, such as eye contact or abstract questions, which can elicit unexpected reactions from someone with autism. According to news reports, police reported having trouble making eye contact with the jogger, who was questioned and eventually released, and officers were unaware of such issues arising while communicating with people with autism.

“We also talked about importance of families, parents and caregivers,” Potter said. “Individuals with autism are very rule-bound. We have to teach them that it’s OK to get into a car with police, firefighters, and other authority figures — that they are exceptions to the [stranger] rule.”

According to the Autism Society, one to 1.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. It is the fastest-growing developmental disability with a 1,148 percent growth rate.