• A training program is helping police understand those with autism

    By: Heather Hegedus

    Updated:

    SHARON, Mass. - In Miami in 2016, police shot an autistic man's therapist because they thought the silver toy truck the boy was holding was a gun.

    And police body camera footage shows what happened in Buckeye, Arizona when a police officer thought a teen was doing drugs in a park. The teen has autism and being handcuffed was traumatic.

    The officer took the teen's actions, referred to as 'stimming', as a threat. Stimming is self-stimulatory behavior. It's something individuals with autism may use to calm themselves. 

    Bill Cannata, a retired Westwood firefighter, is the father of an adult son with autism. He now spends his time traveling around the state educating police and fire departments about how to act and react around people with autism.

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    It's called ALEC, or Autism and Law Enforcement Coaltion. Cannata and his team of trainers are all first responders.

    "They also have to have that autism connection," he said. 

    Founded in 2003, ALEC has been credited with the fact that our area hasn't seen any major incidents involving police and individuals with autism.

    "When you get out of the car and you start interacting with somebody and they have autism, now it clicks," Sharon Police Sgt. Adam Leavitt said. 

    Leavitt has been part of the training for years. In Sharon, police collect bio sheets on individuals living in their town to understand families' individual situations.

    "We had one resident who, as his son got older and grew and grew and grew, it got to the point where he was having a hard time defending himself from physical assaults," Sgt. Leavitt said. "He came to me and told me he would rather take the assault than come to us."

    ALEC now has a grant to try to take the program nationally. There's also a bill in the state house right now to expand the training to corrections officers and to police who didn't recieve the training in police academy. 

    MORE: Unlocking the autism puzzle: A Boston 25 News In Depth Special

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