Police and parents share information on autism

Police chiefs John Phillippy, Greencastle, and Jim Sourbier, Waynesboro, met with parents of children on the autism spectrum to learn how to best meet the needs of the young people in emergency situations.

"What would be helpful for police to know?"

That question opened a meeting between parents of children with autism, and two police chiefs. John Phillippy, Greencastle, and Jim Sourbier, Waynesboro, met with the group at St. Andrew Parish Hall in Waynesboro Monday night, and both sides realized good communication was necessary for everyone to interact in the best way.

Trish Ieraci, public relations director of Providing Relief for Autistic Youth, moderated the exchange of information. The organization was based in Williamsport, Md., but had members in Franklin County. The Autism Support of Waynesboro also hosted.

Of most concern was if a child on the autism spectrum was involved in a 911 call. The parents knew emergency responders might have to provide different care than that given to people not affected by the range of complex brain disorders manifested in difficulties in social skills, communication and repetitive behavior.

"The biggest help is your knowledge of your own child," said Phillippy.

His pet peeve was when any parent could not name their child's three best friends.

"You are probably more in tune with that."

Sourbier recommended parents of special needs children self-report information to the Franklin County Department of Emergency Services. Then if the family's address popped up on a 911 call, the fire, ambulance and police department personnel would be alerted to the kind of victim they could encounter. He acknowledged that some people were hesitant to provide that type of information to an agency.

"We're police officers," said Sourbier. "We're not specifically trained to deal with autism. We can't help you if we don't know what the problem is."

Phillippy said information kept in the glove compartment of the vehicle would be useful for any individual with an issue. He suggested information on the primary adults in the family, another contact person, description and photo of the child, triggers and responses to stress, the "silver bullet" on how to handle behavior, health data, name of primary care physician, hospital preference, and "meds are always helpful."

Both officers supported putting a name in the cell phone contact list, under ICE (In Case of Emergency).

Phillippy and Sourbier welcomed parents to bring their children to the station to meet officers so communication could start.

Sourbier had a caveat, stating the officers could be disconcerted by the encounter. Youth with autism had varying reactions to meeting people in uniform. In turn, the officers would react to the behavior.

"There is as much a need for our awareness as for your child's awareness," he said.

Ieraci hoped that as each side became more familiar with the other, there would be less likelihood an emergency situation would result in things "going south too fast."

Phillippy reminded the group that the most important job of the police was to help people. Sourbier added that if responders did not know the people involved were on the spectrum, they would not get special consideration.

"If an unidentified individual is acting out, we'll treat them on the behavior they are displaying. That's not always pretty."

That was why both men encouraged parents to notify Franklin County, or at least the local police department, with relevant information on anyone with autism.

Many of the parents were members of the Asperger's/HFA Support Group of Franklin County. It meets monthly at Grove Family Library in Chambersburg. Interested people can call the library or ask to join the Facebook page.