ORLANDO, Fla. – Michael Morales, always with his mother Denise Morales at his side, visits the Orange County Sheriff’s Office regularly to train deputies on how to handle his condition.
The 26-year-old has autism.
“He doesn’t respond, his thought process is just - it’s not where you want it to be, it’s where he wants it to be,” Denise explained. “He says what comes to his mind, sometimes it’s inappropriate.”
All new Orange County Sheriff’s deputies undergo an intense, day-long autism awareness training program that includes conversations with those with autism, like Michael. Current deputies get an autism awareness training refresher.
“When you approach someone with autism, the tone of your voice has to completely change,” Denise said. “You can’t just say get out of the car, they really get agitated. Then you’re going to have a fight on your hands. So what we tell the deputies to do is to change your questioning. Coming up on them yelling and screaming, they don’t know what that means, he gets very agitated.”
Denise does not let Michael out of her sight.
“Sometimes when Michael goes out he’ll see a pretty girl and make a comment, he’ll make a comment to the pretty girl and sometimes she’ll say thank you,” Denise said. “But somebody might take it the wrong way and before you know it someone goes to the store manager, the store manager calls police, police come to the store. And if I’m not there and he’s questioned, he wouldn’t know.”
If Michael were to end up in an encounter with police without Denise and if the deputy wasn’t aware of Michael’s autism, it might not go well, Denise said.
“It could go wrong very, very quickly,” she said.
Orange County Sheriff John Mina helped created stickers for families with autism to be placed on the back window of their cars or the front door of their homes.
“What that does for deputies is it gives them that reminder, they need to revert back to their training, the training that we do helps them better interact with people who have autism,” Mina said. “I could worry about an interaction going very wrong, very badly. You’ve seen stories across the nation and we don’t want that happening here.”
Mina said it’s critical for his deputies to know when they’re responding to a situation involving autism.
“Some people don’t like the lights of a police car, they may not like people getting close to them,” Mina said. “I live in a neighborhood where my next door neighbor’s son has autism, someone across the street has autism, and I hear different sounds all the time and I know exactly what that is, because I know my neighbors. But a law enforcement officer or another neighbor may not realize that person has autism and they think something’s actually wrong in the home.”
The sheriff’s office has handed out more than 3,000 autism stickers and added around 1,100 families address to their dispatchers’ database so dispatchers can alert deputies when they’re responding to a home that is registered in the autism database.
Families can also add notes to the database such as autism triggers and calming techniques.
To sign up, click here.