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When Jennifer Allen’s son Samuel got his driver’s license at age 18, she wasn’t concerned about him being behind the wheel, but she worried about how symptoms of his Asperger’s diagnosis might be interpreted by the police in a traffic stop.
People with Asperger’s – also known as mild or high-functioning autism – experience significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. If someone with Asperger’s were to be pulled over by law enforcement, his or her behavior could be seen as combative or defiant, Allen said.
Allen and her son lobbied Texas legislators for five years, educating them on the importance of giving people with communication issues caused by disabilities a way to notify law enforcement officials before they approach a vehicle.
The results of the San Antonio family’s efforts will be felt statewide on Sept. 1, when Senate Bill 976, known as the Samuel Allen Law, goes into effect.
For those who provide proof of a medically diagnosed communication impediment to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, a code will be associated with their license plate so the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications System can alert an officer that a motorist may have trouble communicating. Texas is the nation’s first state to provide this information to law enforcement through vehicle registration information.
“People on the autism spectrum tend to take a little more time to respond than neurotypical people might,” Allen said. “The fear I had is that they will be pulled over by an officer of the law and the officer will misconstrue what my child or any other person would be trying to tell them. Letting the officer know in advance helps both the officer and the driver.”
The Allen family has worked to educate law enforcement and the community about Asperger’s through their nonprofit educational organization Asperger’s 101, which Allen started when her son was diagnosed at age 10.
“We were struggling to find our own answers, so we began compiling information and making it available for free to the public to help families better understand what is going on and what they can do,” Allen said.
When Samuel got his license, Asperger’s 101 began informing the community through its Driving With Autism initiative, which included an educational training component for first responders that was eventually endorsed by the state.
“My mom and I would do presentations at police stations and explain what Asperger’s is and what it might look like for someone with the diagnosis,” Samuel said. “I would explain that as a person diagnosed with autism, I have faced challenges, but these challenges don’t affect my driving, but they could” be misinterpreted by a police officer during a traffic stop.
The San Antonio Police Department is one of several from across the state that invited the Allens to educate its officers on Asperger’s and communication issues.
“Information is power for us,” said SAPD spokesman Sgt. Jesse Salame. “Autism is very prevalent, and it is very likely that an officer will encounter someone with the diagnosis at some point.”
The training explains what autism is and how it affects a person’s communication abilities.
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Recently, an SAPD officer was able to put that training to use to save the life of an autistic teenager, SAPD Chief William McManus told the Rivard Report on Thursday.
A patrol officer driving on a local freeway came across a young man wielding a two-by-four in the middle of the inside lane as cars zoomed quickly past. Upon approaching him, the officer, whom SAPD declined to identify, quickly recognized the youth had a cognitive impairment and was not suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues.
Using communication skills learned from the Allens, the officer talked the young man into putting the piece of lumber down, and then helped him get off the freeway and return safely home.
“We implemented this training because our core values are compassion, integrity, fairness, and respect,” McManus said. “To see it implemented and deployed by an officer was validation of the good work of the academy, and that the training really does work.”
Salame said SAPD only learned of the officer’s efforts when the teen’s mother contacted the department to thank the officer. The officer will receive formal recognition for his efforts in a ceremony on Sept. 4, and SAPD has invited the Allens to celebrate both the officer and the success of their training program.
“I don’t think it’s an understatement to say this could have ended in a number of different ways,” Salame said. “But instead, the officer saved this kid’s life.”