Bluffton’s Sensory Park at Buckwalter Place was packed March 26 with families enjoying the beautiful weather. The kids were laughing and playing on the equipment, and the adults were talking and sharing experiences.
Officers from the Bluffton Police Department and Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office were giving away pencils and erasers, and cooking hotdogs and hamburgers.
The reason for the gathering was LAF AID, a collaboration between the Lowcountry Autism Foundation and local law enforcement agencies to help when those with autism experience difficulties.
“The foundation has been providing training on how to interact and engage with an individual who is autistic,” said LAF Program Coordinator Sophia Townes. “The goal is to assist law enforcement to be able to find someone on the spectrum who goes missing. That’s a big problem in our population. It’s also to assist law enforcement when an individual who is on the spectrum is in crisis, having a mental health emergency.”
The event provided families an opportunity to register with emergency services any member who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. Autistic individuals are often impacted by sensory differences, changes in routine, anxiety, or communication difficulties.
Those who register for the free program receive a bracelet and a shoe tag with a personalized ID number that will be linked with the emergency services file. If the wearer is separated from family and found by law enforcement, the person can easily be identified.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 7.5 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with ASD. LAF serves 2,500 families from Charleston to Hilton Head with a “small but mighty team of four people,” said Townes.
“How the program works is, for example, ‘John Smith’ is a 15-year-old with ASD. He does not like to be touched on the head, he loves trains, he hates noises. When the family dials 911, immediately dispatch is going to see a file pop up with his photo and his information,” said Townes. “That will help with giving law enforcement best practices in interacting with John.”
Among the reasons the registration event included the law enforcement agencies was a subject that Townes said people don’t want to touch on.
“If there is a situation in public where an individual with autism is in crisis, and they are very upset, aggressive and look to be a danger to themselves and to others,” she said, “by them having that bracelet on their wrist or shoe tag on their shoe, once law enforcement is called and comes on the scene, they can recognize that the individual has autism and is in crisis, and they need to deescalate the situation.”
Stacey Lauderdale-Littin, who provides family support services, research and advocacy outreach for the Lowcountry Autism Foundation out of Charleston, is responsible for putting together the program and training for local law enforcement.
“This program is new locally and came out of the NAMI training I’ve been doing with officers,” said Littin.
NAMI – the National Alliance on Mental Illness – is a nationwide nonprofit that “provides advocacy, education, support and public awareness so that all individuals and families affected by mental illness can build better lives,” according to the organization’s website.
“I had a lot of officers ask, ‘How am I supposed to identify someone with autism in order to know how to utilize the field tips provided?’ My answer was always unless someone is there to tell you that that individual has autism, or unless they’re able to tell you themselves, there’s really no way for you to know,” Littin said.
Littin said that when she conducts training, out of 20 people, at least 60% of the students know or love someone who has autism. Sometimes law enforcement has frequent encounters with the same individuals, and so are familiar with how to engage them safely and calmly. It’s another story when the individual in crisis is a new contact.
“You want to have as much information as you can before you encounter anyone so that way you can help with the approach.” said Bluffton Police Chief Stephenie Price. “It’s about understanding what’s going to happen, so having more information is ideal.”
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said officers in the department have had the NAMI and autism training for a while.
“I am sure that we have encountered different things that would relate to the training that we received from NAMI. We also have decals made up. These decals are made to go on the back glass, which lets us know there’s an adult or child with autism in the vehicle. That way, when we approach the vehicle, we know more about maybe a challenge or two that we may have ahead of us,” said Tanner.
For parents of autistic children, it is a real concern about what will happen if their child does something that involves the police.
“My situation is we’ve got one kid that’s on the autistic spectrum. Luckily, he’s not really a flight risk, and is fairly high functioning. But our biggest interest in this is, at least personally was more the training aspect for the police department,” said Winston Stubbart, whose son is 12. “His ability to listen isn’t necessarily like everybody else. So having some kind of identifier that indicates that ‘Hey, this person might not respond normally’ is something that just lets the police know they might need a different approach.”
Amanda Szwajkos and her husband have two toddlers that keep them jumping.
“I’ve got two little ones diagnosed with autism. They are both nonverbal, so we certainly deal with that. They also have several sensory issues,” said Szwajkos. “They are both at risk of elopement. It is something that we’re concerned about and want to do everything possible just to keep them safe. This program has been a godsend.”
Another LAF AID event will be held from 4:30 to 6 p.m. April 21 at Lowcountry Celebration Park, 2 S. Forest Beach Drive on Hilton Head Island, and from 4:30 to 6 p.m. May 19 at Pigeon Point Park, 1512 Pigeon Point Road, Beaufort.
For more information about Lowcountry Autism Foundation and LAF AID, visit lafinc.org/lafaid.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.