LAKE MARY, Fla. – When a family with an autistic adult son moved into the city of Lake Mary, officers had no idea -- until they were called to the home by 911 dispatchers.
Sgt. Doug Wheeler of the Lake Mary Police Department said the 6 foot tall, 200-pound man with autism has a fascination with law enforcement.
“He also learned that if he calls 911 and hangs up the phone, police will respond to the house,” Wheeler said. “When the officers arrived, the gentleman came running out of the house rushing the officers and screaming. Fortunately, one of the officers had gone to officer autism training put on locally and recognized some of the things he’s seeing and quickly understood something was different about what was going on.”
Wheeler said the officers calmly but cautiously greeted the man without drawing a weapon. But the situation could have ended entirely differently, and too many times does, simply because police don’t know what they’re walking into.
So Wheeler created the Special Needs Registry with Police Chief Michael Biles’ blessing.
“We are in a world where we certainly need to be more innovative,” Biles said. “Law enforcement can be a target every day just because of things that have happened in our industry in the past year-and-a-half, but we recognize some of the problems we’re dealing with people may not know about the resources that these folks need without this transition that we’re doing.”
Wheeler’s nephew has autism.
“I’ve seen the challenges they face raising a child with autism, and I’ve seen the support they need,” Wheeler said. “So to me it’s more than a sticker (in the window) and an application, it should be a relationship with them in the Lake Mary Police Department.”
Wheeler said families who voluntarily apply for the registry -- those with autism, Alzheimer’s disease, hearing or vision impairment or anything else -- describe the diagnosis, characteristics and what could calm the person if police or emergency personnel encounter the person with special needs.
“The more officers know before they respond to an address about who they’re dealing with in a situation, they can better respond to that situation,” Wheeler said. “One of the questions we ask is, ‘Are there any de-escalation techniques that would work with their loved ones?’”
Jenn and Theo Kaufmann were the second family in Lake Mary to apply for the registry for their 6-year-old son Brody, who has autism.
“He doesn’t really handle change very well and needs a little bit more guidance on how to handle his own feelings,” Jenn Kaufmann said. “I don’t know because I see with my son, especially with his aggression, if there were any kind of emergency situation I don’t know how he’d handle it and I don’t know how people would handle him. If they had to come to our door for an emergency, they could quickly look up information about our son and things that are individual to his needs.”
The Kaufmanns listed Boo Bunny, a tattered but beloved stuffed bunny, on their registry application.
“He’s been around since Brody was a baby and this is Brody’s lifeline,” Jenn Kaufmann said. “Brody can be having an absolute meltdown and Boo Bunny will make him feel calm and calm him down in those kinds of situations. That’s one of the main things I put on the application, because if we’re not here to verbalize things for him and if something happens, they will know that this is going to be somewhere in this house. This will help him calm down for sure.”
The Kaufmann also got a sticker from the police department to place at their front door to designate the house as special needs.
“Just the fact of knowing that can make a situation completely different,” Theo Kaufmann said. “No more do we want him to hurt someone or someone to hurt him in an unfortunate situation just because they didn’t know.”
The Lake Mary Police Department also gives bracelets to those with special needs if they request them. The bracelets identify the special need and are useful if the person encounters police outside the home, especially if the person has Alzheimer’s disease or is hearing or sight impaired.
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