Montco families living with autism work to build stronger relationship with police

How the police interact with different kinds of people in their communities has been at the forefront of a national and local conversation.

One of the communities looking to build a better relationship with police includes the families of those with special needs.

Every day, police deal with people who have some sort of challenge. There have been incidents and conversations about how to respond to people in the midst of a mental health crisis and families of children with autism are no different. They want the same understanding.

"I'm 20 years old and I make coffee on my coffee cart," said Jake McFarland. He’s a barista and the owner of Coffee Closet with Jake in Norristown. He loves his job.

"Yes. Yes. And making coffee for my customers," he said. Jake also has autism.

"Every time he's not within eyeshot, I worry," said Jake’s mom, Angela. She says there are many concerns for a child with special needs or on the spectrum, including what could happen if they have an interaction with police.

"I want to help law enforcement understand what our kids are like, what they need and I want to help them be able to do their job so that they're safe, so that our kids are safe," Angela stated.

Angela organized a meet-up Wednesday night, at the family business, for a conversation with autism families and surrounding police departments. Speakers discussed suggested police de-escalation techniques like giving space, slowing down speech, using simple and direct language and watching body language for those who may be non-verbal. They also watched videos of police responses in other states to calls for help for children with autism in crisis that didn't end well.

"We, in the law enforcement community, should be doing a better job of getting this information to the officers out on the street and that, to me, is what really hit home," commented Lt. Kenneth Lawless with Norristown Police.

"The learning goes toward safety and trust. The safety of both the individuals we are dealing with on the street as well as the officers and trying to make sure that there's…to the best of our abilities, to minimize any chance for mistake," he said.

Eagles Autism Ambassador Ben Hartranft shared his experiences and overcoming challenges living with autism. Angela says the end goal is for families to feel hopeful.

"I want them feeling like the police officers have their backs," she said. Angela also began the night by saying her family quote "backs the blue". They just want to be a resource for families and police coming together on autism.



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