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Bill aims to help police ID people with autism

RICHMOND—While no one relishes a traffic stop by a police officer, such an encounter could be especially troubling for someone with autism.

“Think about those flashing blue lights, think about how overstimulating that could be,” said Sgt. Tim Sutton with the Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.

Imagine, he added, how an officer might respond when he asks a person “What’s your name?” and is simply told, “What’s your name?”

“You can see how that could be a recipe for disaster,” Sutton said.

Sen. Don McEachin, D–Henrico, hopes to improve those interactions with a bill that would allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to put a designation on a person’s driver’s license or identification card that that person has autism spectrum disorder or an intellectual disability.

The designation would be voluntary, McEachin said in a news conference at the Capitol Thursday. And his bill would require the person to provide a letter from a doctor attesting to the autism spectrum disorder or intellectual disability.

But he thinks it could help police to know, when they stop and question a person, that behavior the police officer might find odd may simply be an autistic behavior.

Sutton, who also spoke at the Tuesday news conference, has been working to train other law-enforcement officers around the state on how to identify and respond to autistic behaviors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that one in 88 children currently have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum disorder. That number was one in 150 in 2000.

And people with autism, Sutton said, are seven times more likely to have contact with police.

“Law enforcement is having quite a few contacts and interactions with people on the spectrum, and they’re not turning out very well,” Sutton said.

He said behaviors like flapping arms or “echolalia”—repeating back the words said to that person—can alarm an officer, but that such behaviors can simply indicate that a person with autism is feeling overstimulated.

In his training for other officers, Sutton said he describes autistic behaviors, explains that behaviors occur along a spectrum, explains that yes, high-functioning people with autism do drive. He said there’s “a literalness to autism” that might startle officers.

Without preparation that includes training on understanding autism, he said, those encounters “could end up leading to a bad situation.”

If the officer could look at the person’s driver’s license or ID, he said, and see that the person had autism or an intellectual disability, it could change the way that officer dealt with the situation.

McEachin’s bill was the brainchild of Pam Mines, a Chesterfield County mother of three, including 9-year-old J.P., who has autism.

J.P. has never had a troubling encounter, Mines said. But she wants him one day to get out into the world. She wants him to drive. She wants him to be safe.

“You really tend to constantly think and try to be proactive” as the parent of a child with autism, she said. She hopes the bill “can protect him in some way.”

McEachin said the DMV already allows special designations on driver’s licenses for people with some medical conditions, such as diabetes.

But he thinks this is the first time anyone’s suggested putting an autism designation on the back of an ID, and he thinks this would be the first such law in the nation.

“I do not believe any other states have done this,” McEachin said.

His bill is already moving through the General Assembly, and passed unanimously out of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this week. It will now go to the full Senate for a vote, and then to the House.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245


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