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News / Nation & World

Can police avoid hurting autistic individuals? Central Florida cops learn how

By Cristóbal Reyes, Orlando Sentinel
Published: December 24, 2023, 3:40pm

Donna Lorman wanted her son’s green pop tube, so she tried to take it from him. Drew Lorman, a 31-year-old man with autism, protected it, pushing his mother back harder with each attempt to yank the toy out his hands.

“No,” he said during one try. “Move away,” he said in another.

Drew Lorman easily could have thrown his mother to the ground, or worse, had it not been for years of behavioral analysis Donna Lorman said brought him down from 96 aggressive episodes an hour to two or fewer in a month. But he could potentially face lethal force if a police officer tried to detain him without knowing that Drew, who stands over six feet tall and weighs more than 300 pounds, has the cognitive age of a 7-year-old.

That’s the kind of situation Donna Lorman, president of the Autistic Society of Greater Orlando and Osceola, said she hopes to prevent for her son and others with autism as she spoke before law enforcement officers from across the Central Florida region on Tuesday at the Kissimmee Civic Center. Following their demonstration of how the mother and autistic son interact, she high-fived Drew, signaling a job well done.

“He had been trained to replace those behaviors, but if we don’t listen, then we’re going to bring them on — and then what do we have? Battery on a LEO,” Lorman said, using the abbreviation for law enforcement officer. “Easy, if we know what book we’re reading.”

Tuesday’s training comes as House Bill 829 makes its way through the Florida Legislature. Filed last week by Rep. Paula Stark, R-St. Cloud, the bill would require officers to receive at least four hours of in-person instruction on dealing with people on the autism spectrum, from techniques for identifying and interviewing them to de-escalation tactics and procedures in missing persons cases involving them. The bill is intended as a complement to the recently passed Protect Our Loved Ones Act, which authorizes local policing agencies to maintain a database of people with disabilities.

The proposed training requirements would further instruct officers on the restrictions in Florida’s Baker Act, which does not allow people to be involuntarily committed if they are diagnosed only with autism spectrum disorder, which is not a mental illness.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 36 children are diagnosed with autism, a proportion that has grown in recent decades as experts more accurately identify the signs at an early age and as cultural perceptions, particularly in communities of color, begin to shift. Characteristics of autism include oversensitivity to stimuli, delayed learning and social skills, and, in some cases, high thresholds for pain.

Lorman, a longtime advocate, and Bal Harbour police detective Hector Gonzalez have trained thousands of officers throughout Florida and Georgia for nearly a decade, and on Tuesday used their adult children as examples in various role-playing scenarios. The pair held an eight-hour training session the day before at the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, which Lorman said is one of two Central Florida agencies that mandate autism awareness training, along with the New Smyrna Beach Police Department.

Gonzalez, whose son Christopher also took part in the training, said preparing officers is critical, as it can often mean the difference between life and death for someone who, despite their chronological age, may not understand what’s going on.

“I hate to say it about my profession, but we have a couple of bad apples out there, and we know that that one officer is the one who’s going to find your kid and things are going to go crazy,” Gonzalez said.

Stark said her bill is the result of conversations with advocates and community leaders who signaled the need for added training for law enforcement. She observed Tuesday’s training, grimacing like many others in the room while watching body camera footage of an Arizona police officer taking down a teen who tried to walk away after he was spotted self-stimulating, or “stimming,” by playing with a string in a city park.

In that case, a neighbor who knew the teen intervened, and the officer then realized the teen had autism. That officer was sued in federal court for excessive force but was later cleared of wrongdoing by a jury, reported the Arizona Republic.

“That is an example of what we don’t want to happen,” Stark said. “If any ounce of this prevention solves any of it, then we’re ahead of the game.”

Still, such flawed interactions are not uncommon.

Earlier this year, the parents of a 9-year-old boy with special needs filed a federal lawsuit against the Oviedo Police Department after two officers handcuffed him and threatened to take him to jail over an aggressive episode, despite the protests of teachers who said the child had a “behavior intervention plan.”

Lorman has countless such stories. But she is pushing to make a difference.

“If we do not start policing our kids at their developmental age versus their chronological age, they are going to continue to get hurt,” Lorman warned the officers Tuesday. “And so are you.”

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