NewsPinellas County


'Eye opener:' New training program helps officers better interact with kids, teens with autism

Johns Hopkins launches realistic simulations
Posted at 5:26 PM, Oct 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-25 03:36:28-04

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A new training program recently launched by Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital is designed to help officers better interact with people with autism.

The training is designed to feel real and is modeled off of similar police calls. In the simulation, medical actors and actresses role play to show officers how someone with autism might respond.

Doctors believe it could save lives and the actors, who have autism, say the simulations are helping to spread awareness.

“This is such an important program for not only me but so many other families,” Gabby Cabrera explained.

Cabrera has autism and also has a younger brother on the spectrum.

Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital is offering the training for free, paid for by a grant from the Cigna Foundation. In just nine months, they've trained 170 officers from 50 different agencies.

Officers tell ABC Action News it changes their perspective.

“I just sat there and cried after the training because I wouldn’t want my child to be treated this way, but as an officer, we’re not trained with how to deal with autistic individuals. Now that we took this training, and we have a better understanding, it’s an eye-opener," Officer Carla Ramos of the St. Petersburg Police Department explained.

One in 59 children are diagnosed with autism nationwide.

Florida is one of just a handful of states that require autism training for every law enforcement officer.

The requirement came after Charles Kinsey, a caregiver for an individual with autism in North Miami, was shot in the leg by a police officer, despite having his arms in the air and trying to explain to officers that his client had autism.

The officer was charged with negligence this past June. A cell phone video taken of the incident prompted training across Florida.

Dr. Jennifer Arnold, the Medical Director of the simulations program at Johns Hopkins, says the training is crucial.

"As a parent, as a health care provider, as an educator, the value of this program is tremendous,” she explained.

Lauren Gardner, who heads up the hospital's autism program, rode along with officers to understand the situations they face before developing the program.

"It's more and more likely officers will be receiving these kinds of calls. Having officers understand the signs and symptoms of autism is really imperative to keeping everyone safe," she added.

Cabrera is motivated to coach as many officers as possible.

“I want this to expand to be all over the country and even all over the world,” she said.