Police in towns using Autism Awareness 911
The Autism News | English
By Andrew Sylvia | The Huntington At Nashua
Families of autistic children in Wilton now have another option of added safety, joining several communities across the state.
The Wilton Police Department launched a program during the first week in June called Autism Awareness 9-1-1, in which families of autistic children can let local emergency personnel know about the child’s condition.
The program, coordinated in the Nashua area by Gateways Community Services, is designed to help avoid any potential undue conflict from social misunderstandings between the child and the officer, particularly in instances with lost children where misunderstandings could create conflict.
Wilton Police Chief Brent Hautanen thinks the program will be useful.
“From a law enforcement perspective, the more information we have, the better our response is going to be,” Hautanen said. “If we have a child that’s missing that’s autistic, the faster we can get that information, the better we’ll be able to handle that call.”
Begun in the state in the Manchester area by Easter Seals several years ago, autism registration with emergency respondents now encompasses 30 towns and cities, according to Elizabeth Webster, spokeswoman for Easter Seals New Hampshire .
In Greater Nashua, some of the other towns that use the program are Milford, Nashua, Litchfield, Hudson and Merrimack.
Lori Fischer, of Merrimack, who is a parent of an autistic child, thinks the voluntary program is a good idea.
“A lot of children with autism wander, and if they wander off and the police find them, then they’ll know how to handle it,” Fischer said. “I don’t think it should be mandatory, though. There are some kids that are autistic who you wouldn’t even know are autistic and could handle it if the police were to approach them.”
Others, such as New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union Director Claire Ebel, are concerned with aspects of the practice.
While Ebel doesn’t believe it’s a civil liberties issue when autistic children are placed on a list by their parents, she fears unforeseen consequences when they grow up if their parents no longer have guardianship.
“I think that the concern for me from a civil liberties perspective would be the placement of any individual on a list; that’s something I don’t find very comforting,” Ebel said. “I am always very concerned when authorities of any kind start to make lists, because there’s always the potential that once you’re on a list, you can never get off that list, and it can be used for purposes for which you do not wish to participate.”
Despite those concerns, the program seems to be a hit. In Wilton, the first registrant signed up within a week. In Merrimack, 33 people have signed up.
A police officer’s “presence can be a calming influence if the child has already met the officer; it’s not something that would be really scary,” said David Hackett, parent-to-parent director and legislative liaison for Gateways. “And this program gives the police the information that they would need to put out (the information) to as many cruisers as the department had.
“So, in 15 or 20 minutes after the child disappeared, they’d know about it, and they’d be able to search a much smaller area.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one in every 100 Americans has been diagnosed with some form of autism, and although the psychological disorder was first diagnosed early in the 20th century, the practice of disclosing autism for the sake of community to law enforcement relations has been introduced in New Hampshire only recently.
To sign up or for more information:
• Contact Michelle Abbott at email@example.com or 459-1798.
• Call Webster at 1-877- 6AUTISM.
• Visit www.gatewayscs.org/ autism_911.htm or http://nh.easterseals.com/Autism911.