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UVU autism training seeks to shrink the gray area between policing and mental health

Ryan Roettger at the workshop to help police keep people with autism safe during emergencies. The workshop was held at Utah Valley University in Orem on Nov. 3, 2022.
Kristine Weller
Ryan Roettger at the workshop to help police keep people with autism safe during emergencies. The workshop was held at Utah Valley University in Orem on Nov. 3, 2022.

In 2011, Ryan Roettger put his daughter in his lap and wrapped his arms and legs around her because she needed a blood draw. He didn’t want her to squirm from the pain of the needle and hurt herself more. He was expecting World War III.

But as the nurse put the needle in the 3-year-old’s arm, she started laughing.

The purpose of the blood draw was to see if Roettger’s daughter had Rett Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder that is classified as an autism spectrum disorder. In the end, she was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome. Roettger’s daughter started laughing because many people with autism appear to have higher pain tolerance and don’t react to pain the same as neurotypical people.

This is one of many stories Roettger told at a Utah Valley University workshop he led that was meant to teach police how to keep people with autism safe during emergencies.

Since 2021, Utah has mandated that all peace officers receive annual training on mental health crises, autism spectrum disorders and de-escalation. The training hosted by UVU satisfies that requirement.

Roettger, a police sergeant from Connecticut, said when officers are called to situations involving people with autism, they should try to stay hands-off. However, if they have to intervene, one of the easiest ways to calm someone with autism down is to wrap a blanket around them and hug them.

“These guys actually stop fighting because they appreciate the sensory of being hugged and squeezed almost like a burrito,” Roettger said.

He also said that because people with autism can appear to have high pain tolerance, officers should be careful not to use too much force as they could injure an autistic individual when they don’t respond to pain. Bending someone’s wrist for compliance might not work with someone who is autistic. Roettger said they might not respond even after the wrist is broken. Instead, officers should transition to different techniques.

If the story of his daughter and the needle weren’t enough to demonstrate this tolerance, Roettger told of another time when he came home to his daughter with blood all over her face and hospital-style bed. Since Roettger’s daughter has Rett Syndrome, she can’t talk. She also has no functional use of her hands; they don’t do what her brain tells them to.

“Receptively, she understands everything,” Roettger said. “Expressively, she’s trapped in her own body. She can’t talk.”

So he asked her what happened. She just smiled, exposing bloody gums and two missing front teeth. Roettger said those baby teeth were loose, but not ready to go. Yet, she still knocked them out and seemed fine.

Even though some people with autism are nonverbal, that doesn’t mean they can’t understand what people say.

“You’re going to ask them a question, they’re trying their hardest to answer your questions, but they can’t. There’s the anxiety, there’s the abnormal behavior,” Roettger said. “They’re trying to answer your questions, but they can’t talk. They’re trapped in their own body.”

Those who are nonverbal sometimes have what’s called a Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS card. This is either a laminated paper or a digital array of pictures that are used for communication. The user will point to various pictures (or click on them if it’s digital) to string a sentence together.

For example, an officer responds to a call at a house. The person who opens the door has this form of communication, and they point to a picture that says “mom,” then to a picture saying “hurt,” then to a staircase with an arrow pointing up, then to “bathroom.” That translates to “Mom is hurt in the upstairs bathroom.”

“If you are patient enough to recognize this mode of communication and patient enough to see what he’s trying to do, which is answer your question, he just did,” Roettger said.

Sandy City Police Officer Anthony Griffiths said he attended the training because he missed the one held in his department, but also because the topic is important.

He has dealt with a couple of situations with people who have autism. Some were calls from autism group homes where residents are 18 and older. Most of the time, it’s a misunderstanding between the staff and the police because the police can’t prove there was intent to harm. They can’t arrest anyone because the person with autism didn’t mean to hurt anyone, they just lashed out.

“It’s more finding that strange middle ground between us and staff and saying ‘I understand you want us to help, but this is not something that we can really make better with us being here,’” Griffiths said.

Regardless, he still thinks these types of trainings are helpful.

“There’s a lot of gray area between policing and just mental health in general. But autism is one that, again, if we don’t understand it, we can’t approach the people that are suffering from autism.”

Kristine Weller is a newsroom intern at KUER. She’s only been a journalist for a year but is excited to see what the future holds.
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