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BC police, first responders train to deal with people with autism

B.C. police, emergency responders train to deal with people with autism
WATCH: Some police officers, firefighters, and other first responders are now getting training on how to properly deal with people with autism. Catherine Urquhart reports.

At the Justice Institute in New Westminster, Sgt. Linda Stewart trains new police officers in the art of effective communication with a newly increased focus on how to manage people with autism.

“The whole goal of this is allowing the subject time to communicate and co-operate with you,” Sgt. Stewart said. “Sometimes we move in too quickly.”

The course teaches officers how to de-escalate a situation. In a scenario using an actor, officers have to help an autistic man who needs to be removed from the SkyTrain platform.

Specific police training is critical considering one in 68 children are diagnosed on the autism spectrum. In the U.S., several people with autism have been shot or tasered by police over the years.

Joan Rush is thankful she lives in Canada. Last November, her profoundly autistic son Graeme disappeared from Burnaby’s Central Park.

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“Graeme acts oddly, especially if he’s distressed and so he might have been sitting, rocking and banging his head,” she said. “People would assume possibly that he was suffering from a drug overdose.”

Fortunately, Graeme was found and returned to his family, thanks to Vancouver police and the RCMP, who are also actively educating recruits about autism.

“I think it was a bit of a learning experience, even for some of the people who found Graeme,” she said.

Stewart hopes the course will give officers a better understanding of people with autism and arm them with the skills to diffuse situations that could turn tragic.

– With files from Catherine Urquhart