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Dealing with autism: Area police departments develop profiles for special needs residents
By D. Craig MacCormack / News Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004

HOLLISTON -- A police officer's harrowing rescue last week of Jack Glidden, a 7-year-old autistic child who ended up on the roof of his family's home in his underwear, was a good lesson for everyone involved.

Autistic children don't process information the same way as other kids, and that can sometimes create problems during tense situations. Had police come roaring to Old Cart Path last week with sirens on, Jack might have gotten spooked.

But in other cases, the sounds of police cars and colorful lights could be enough to attract a youngster's attention and make things easier to deal with. Such is life when dealing with autism, experts say.

"It manifests itself in different ways for different kids," said Jack's mother Beth Glidden, whose family moved from Newton in August. "It really is an individual response."

That's why Holliston police hope to hook up soon with their counterparts in Franklin and Medway, where two officers host sessions that help safety leaders compile pertinent information to deal with so-called "special situations."

Millis police were dispatched on a massive search for Andrew Grant, 15, an autistic child who ran away twice in September. On the second occasion he was found after several days of searching.

Franklin police Officer Jennifer Mitchell, whose 9-year-old daughter Kristin is autistic, helps parents of special needs children create binders with written descriptions and pictures of their children and GIS maps of places they may wander as part of the Early Search Program.

Mitchell and her husband Steve Mitchell, a police officer in Medway, joined several co-workers to start the free program last December.

"I hope none (of the binders) ever have to be used," Jennifer Mitchell said in an earlier interview. She could not be reached this week about the Holliston Police Department's plans.

Holliston Officer Ciara Ryan went to a Holliston Fire Department class for EMTs hosted by the MetroWest Autism Alliance earlier this year. He has taken the lead with Detective Jim Ward on improving the department's response.

Ryan expects the police could make a "pretty immediate" improvement in how it deals with autistic children by developing the packets and perhaps buying computer software that includes several key ways to deal with the child.

She expects other departments to join the effort, saying most in the area would welcome the help. If it helps officers learn better ways to get an autistic child's attention or give them instruction, it's worth it, she said.

"They relate to things so much differently," said Ryan.

Mitchell said her daughter Kristin's binder advises against sending search dogs to look for her, because Kristin would be extremely afraid of them. For Jack Glidden, his mother suggests steering clear of restraint techniques.

Some autistic kids do not have the normal range of sensations and don't feel the cold, Mitchell said. So such kids' sensory levels would be noted because finding them quickly is paramount, she said.

Franklin uses pre-made copies of the binder data or a disc with information an officer can pop into a laptop computer in a cruiser. This saves two to three hours of interviewing parents, Mitchell said.

Glidden suggested saving names and numbers of the people who deal most often with the autistic children with the tips file. That way, in emergencies, the child sees a familiar face who could calm the situation, she said.

"He might respond to them instead of a stranger, even a police officer," said Beth Glidden.

Ward said the department's plans are in the early stages and he welcomes suggestions to make the program work more effectively. He will assure parents that any information they provide is voluntary and will stay confidential.

He has also talked to Student Services Director Marla Colarusso about the best way to improve response at schools in cases of emergencies with autistic children.

"We want to see what the need is and see if it's something people would be interested in," said Ward.
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