Autism training to become mandatory for Florida law enforcement

1 in 68 children are on the autism spectrum
Posted at 5:32 PM, Jun 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-21 17:32:48-04

"I'm here to try to make some good out of a bad situation," says Wendy Monico of Seminole.

Monico's son Michael was arrested last year after getting in a fight with a family member at their home.

No one was injured in the fight, but Michael was arrested.

"One of the two officers had said we're going to Baker Act him, we're going to take him to the hospital, make sure he's okay," explains Monico. "But the second officer overrode him, said, no I think his behavior is...criminal activity."

For a kid with autism, going to jail was a traumatic experience.

Sensitive to light, Michael struggled to get any sleep for two days. He was also kept from his anxiety medication. And he was heckled by his fellow inmates at the juvenile detention center.

"He should have been sent to the hospital," explains Monico of the experience back in October. Her family has been dealing with the legal ramifications ever since. 

Monico shared her family's experience with local police officers at an autism training seminar today at the Johns Hopkins All Childrens Hospital in St. Pete.

She holds no ill will towards the deputies involved in the incident, but is glad they realize there is room for improvement.

"I think it's amazing there's so many people here today, voluntarily, to learn about this. It's very humbling for me," Monico tells ABC Action News.

The goal of the seminar was to better prepare officers for situations involving someone with autism.

For example, "we talk about different measures that [officers] can use to help de-escalate the anxiety of the situation," explains Sgt. Dan McDonald of the Collier County Sheriff's Office. Sgt. McDonald taught the Wednesday class about the mental condition, often using his own teenage son as an example.

"I try to learn from him and from my experiences as a parent that I can share with other first responders and other parents too," says McDonald.

Classes that McDonald leads are not mandatory, but some could be soon.

Florida's legislature passed a law this Spring, signed into law by the Governor in June, that will require police officers in the state to take training to better learn how to handle situations involving people with autism.

The bill's summary is described this way: Autism Awareness Training for Law Enforcement Officers; Requires FDLE to establish continued employment training component relating to autism spectrum disorder; specifies instruction to be included in training component; provides that completion of training may count toward continued employment instruction requirements.

To learn more about autism and Tampa Bay Area programs related to autism, click HERE.