GREENVILLE — It wasn’t long ago that a mother and son were peacefully walking along the Lansing River Trail in downtown Lansing when the boy, without warning, sprinted off quickly into the distance, running out of his mother’s sight and ignoring her calls to return.
A scary scenario for any mother, but when that child is also autistic, that mother’s world stops spinning.
After calling 911 and reporting that her child was missing, a call was dispatched to all Lansing officers that a young autistic boy was missing near the river trail.
All it took was for the word “autistic” to come over the scanner and every on-duty police officer in the city responded to the call.
Within five minutes the boy was found and reunited with his mother without incident.
It’s stories like that had autism safety specialist Scott Schuelke talking with officers from the Greenville Department of Public Safety on Wednesday about autism awareness.
Schuelke spent several hours giving a presentation at Greenville City Hall on autism risk and safety management, with a goal to teach the public safety officers about how to handle situations involving autistic persons.
According to Schuelke, autism is a neurodevelopmental disability characterized by impaired social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication.
“People with autism are all different and that’s what is so hard for emergency responders,” Schuelke said. “You may see somebody on the street corner watching traffic for hours at a time because they like repetitive motion. People are calling 911 reporting that the person is high, drunk or crazy, but that’s not the case. At least now officers are getting sent out there and realize that this person has autism and they know how to handle the situation.”
Schuelke, a retired sergeant with the Lansing Police Department, said he was approached by the Autism Alliance of Michigan in 2011 after several incidents occurred involving officers and autistic individuals throughout the state in which the results ended poorly.
“There were a couple incidents in the Mid-Michigan area where a police officer and a person with autism didn’t do too well,” he said.
Schuelke said he was asked how much training officers had in dealing with autistic persons, and he replied “none.”
Since that time, Schuelke and his team have trained more than 5,000 individuals, approximately 4,000 of them emergency responders.
“We’ve gone from Sault Ste Marie to Detroit, from Adrian to Grand Haven,” he said. “We’re not asking the officers, firefighters or emergency responders to make a diagnosis. We’re simply giving them tips on how to identity people with autism and autistic behaviors. We’re also giving them tips on how to communicate better with people with autism.”
According to Schuelke, dealing with autistic subjects when responding to an emergency call puts officers and responders in a very difficult situation.
The autistic person may be nonverbal or have limited verbal skills, may not respond to commands or questions, may repeat words and phrases as well as body language and have difficulty expressing needs.
Combined with possible tantrums, extreme distress or even laughing or giggling, Schuelke said most officers are unsure of how to deal with an autistic subject, especially if they are unaware that they are autistic.
Greenville Department of Public Safety Sgt. Brian Blomstrom said after receiving training Wednesday, he believes the department will be in a much better state to handle emergency calls involving autistic subjects.
“This training was highly important for our officers so they learn how to deal with these situations accordingly,” Blomstrom said. “It helps them to recognize individuals that may have this disorder and be able to respond to their needs as necessary.”
A collaborative effort between Montcalm Area Intermediate School District Monitor and Supervisor Deb Koepke and Interim Public Safety Director Mike Stuck brought Schuelke to Greenville thanks to a $16,000 grant from the Ronald McDonald House Charity.
Greenville is the first department in Montcalm County to receive training and Koepke said soon every emergency responder in the county will receive the same training.
“We’re going to be doing additional training for all 14 fire units in the county,” she said. “We’ll also be training the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office, Montcalm County Central Dispatch and Montcalm County Emergency Medical Services.”
Koepke said she has been working to bring the training to Montcalm County for several years, and is relieved to finally see action being taken.
“These kids are all out there, we have about 120 kids with autism across the county in the schools,” she said. “And that’s just children, there are many adults with autism in our communities as well.”
With emergency contact cards being given to families of autistic persons to then be placed in their homes, vehicles, schools, police departments and fire departments, containing many important details about the autistic person, Koepke said she feels efforts are moving in a strong, positive direction.
“It’s just something I’ve had a passion for, to do in our community,” she said. “It’s just a whole big community thing about embracing people with differences and trying to ensure their safety.”
Koepke said efforts are also being made to train bus drivers, educators and family members in dealing with autistic persons.
“We’re trying to train the whole circle, the whole community, to be autism friendly and proactive,” she said.