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Politics and Government

Police, first responders receive training on how to handle people with autism

Tom Magnarelli
Sgt. Jimmy Donohoe talks with law enforcement at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES.

Individuals with autism can be at risk when law enforcement and first responders do not know how to react to them during an incident. But a recent training seminar hosted by Arc of Seneca Cayuga in Auburn was meant to bring more awareness of the autism community to first responders.

Capt. Bill Cannata with the Westwood Massachusetts Fire Department, now retired, and Sgt. Jimmy Donohoe with the Pensacola Police Department, have been traveling the country for the past 12 years teaching first responders how to better understand the autism community. They both have sons who are autistic. Cannata said at some point, it’s likely that first responders will have contact with an autistic person.

“We feel we’re preparing them for that incident," Cannata said. "We’re looking for the positive outcomes. You see a lot of negative ones on the news and that is what we’re trying to prevent.” 

Situations like one that happened last year in North Miami Beach. An autistic man, sitting in the middle of the road with a toy fire truck, was thought to be armed and suicidal. A police officer fired his weapon, missed and shot the man's caregiver in the leg.

Cannata describes their lecture as autism 101; explaining what it is, the severity levels and different scenarios law enforcement may encounter.

“I had something that I could share with other first responders," Cannata said. "I felt I needed to do that for my son and take what he has taught me about people with autism and share that with the first response community.”

Dep. Matthew Sloan with the Cayuga County Sheriff’s Office said his takeaway from the training was how to talk to someone with deficiencies.

“Slow things down," Sloan said. "Try to work on their pace and level. I’ve heard that before at trainings and they reiterated it at this one. It’s an important part of communication so you can get a common understanding and move forward with whatever situation you’re dealing with.”

Denise Osborne with Arc of Seneca Cayuga said the training could save someone’s life.

“In those stressful situations, nobody knows what to do," Osborne said. "So by creating this, we have opened those lines of communication and have been able to bolster the relationships between our first responders, our law enforcement and our families."

Arc of Seneca Cayuga has also connected families with autism to the 911 system so there are no surprises.