Autism registry helps police defuse potentially violent situations

Jordana Divon
Contributing Writer
Daily Brew

Last July, Toronto police came under fire for slapping handcuffs on a nine-year-old boy with Asperger's Syndrome who had become aggressive in class.

The child had reportedly spun out of control, barricading himself with tables and chairs and throwing paint all over the room. When police arrived on the scene, they told the boy to lie down on the ground and cuffed him for five minutes until the mobile crisis intervention team showed up.

The move was sharply criticized by Dr. Glenn Rampton, CEO of Kerry's Place Autism Services, who expressed his concern to QMI Agency at the time.

"That wouldn't be appropriate for any child," he said. "I can't imagine anyone would think that would be an appropriate way to deal with a nine-year-old kid."

While a police spokesman defended their actions that day, saying safety was their number one concern, a handful of law enforcement officials have taken preliminary steps toward learning how to best deal with autistic people in precarious situations.

In 2010, Ottawa became the second Canadian city, after Miramichi, N.B., to adopt the voluntary autism registry, a list designed to help police and first responders be better prepared to interact with individuals with autism.

Launched as a pilot project between Autism Ontario and the police, the registry sets out to let police know, for example, whether an individual may not be able to respond to commands because of autism spectrum disorder — a range of disorders that affect communication, or if flashing lights will trigger a violent response in others.

The goal is to diffuse potentially dangerous situations in a way that avoids harming both the officers and the autistic person involved.

"Our officers are just that, they're police officers, they're not medical professionals. They're not in a position to diagnose people and record it," Zoye Coburn, outreach officer with the Ottawa police, told the Globe and Mail.

"The more information our police officers have when they're responding to a call for service, the better it is for everybody."

As the paper reports, the registry has already proved successful in a number of scenarios.

Last year, Ottawa police managed to subdue an autistic teen threatening his mother with a knife without so much as a raised voice.

Because his family had submitted his information to the registry, police knew of the boy's love for hockey. So instead of drawing their guns, as they normally would in a similar situation, an officer was able to calm the boy down by engaging him in a conversation about his favourite hockey team. The boy relaxed, the knife was safely retrieved, and his mother was able to take him to the hospital.

To date, 300 people have signed up for the registry in Ottawa, and organizers are discussing an expansion to include individuals with other non-verbal conditions.

Other cities, like Windsor, Ont., have also started a similar program after receiving a number of requests.