Program aims to put drivers with autism and officers at ease during traffic stops

The flashing lights, the sirens. For many drivers, a routine traffic stop can spark anxiety. Now factor in a driver with autism. When it comes to law enforcement, the rules of engagement are clear. But for those who have difficulty processing social cues and responding to commands, it can be a confusing scenario that quickly escalates.

For parents, the worry is agonizing. What if my child’s not able to effectively communicate with the officer? Or, what if the officer misinterprets my child’s unique mannerisms? That’s why awareness is critical – for those behind the wheel and those in uniform. A new training program aims to put both at ease.

Will Ogilvie, training drill participant: “I think I’m a good communicator. I know there are some things I need to work on, but I’m learning.”

Like most people with autism, Will Ogilvie has his own style of communicating.

Stewart Ogilvie, Will’s father: “He’s very friendly. Generally speaking he’s open to anybody and everybody. He always makes me proud.”

Will is 27-years-old but just recently decided to get his license. That’s why he’s here – at a mock traffic stop training session on the grounds of Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in west suburban Wheaton.

Brandon Lesch, Marianjoy occupational therapist: “These kids they do best by doing, by giving them that hands on experience.”

Occupational therapist Brandon Lesch helped design the course for high-functioning autistic drivers, partnering with the DuPage County Sheriff’s Department to give students and officers an opportunity to practice their communication skills face-to-face.

Brandon Lesch: “They don’t pick up on social cues, they are not going to make eye contact. From a police officer’s eyes, it could be that they are intentionally not listening or they are on something or trying to be defiant. You throw in a high stressful event, such as getting pulled over by an officer who knows nothing about this teenager, we felt that the risk is pretty high for that miscommunication and risk for a catastrophic event.”

Undersheriff Frank Bibbiano, DuPage County Sheriff’s Department: “When you come across an individual who doesn’t’ act in a typical fashion, your guard goes up. Through our training, it helps not only the driver understand what the police do, but it helps the police understand the actions of a non-typical driver.”

With corporal Mike Urso coaching him from the backseat, Will’s first encounter goes smoothly.

Corporal Troy Agema, DuPage County Sheriff’s Department: “Good afternoon, I’m corporal Agema with the sheriff’s office. The reason I pulled you over is because you rolled a stop sign back there.”

Undersheriff Bibbiano: “Be it on the autism spectrum or not, the best thing a driver can do is just listen to the police officer, keep their hands where they can be seen.”

Corporal Mike Urso, DuPage County Sheriff’s Department: “What he’s going to do now, he goes back to his car. He takes your driver’s license and enters it in his computer system. Next one is gonna be a little tougher.”

On the next run through, corporal Troy Agema intensifies the encounter by using lights and sirens – both can spark sensory overload for those on the spectrum. Will takes it all in stride.

Cpl Urso: “How was it? How do you feel?”

Will Ogilvie: “I feel comfortable.”

But on the final drill, corporal Urso wants will to experience a more urgent scenario.

Cpl Troy Agema: “You hear the sirens, you see the lights. This is when you pull over to the right.”

Cpl Urso: “We have a report of a suspicious white male driving in the area, and we just had a car broken into over there. Where were you five minutes ago?

Brandon Lesch: “They might misinterpret those cues from the officer, thinking that they are angry or trying to be aggressive when they are just doing their job.”

Cpl Urso: “Keep your hands where I can see them, ok? Thank you.”

Will: “At first, I was a little bit nervous, but then I realized just stay positive, be polite and just answer their questions

During each encounter, Will hands over a driver’s information card, a document the DuPage County Sheriff’s Department created to help citizens explain their particular special needs.

Stewart Ogilvie, Will’s father: “God forbid this should ever happen, but if it does I think now he’ll understand what it is, what the procedure is.”

Will: “I am very happy, and I got to make some new friends.”

There is another course coming up on Tuesday, October 24th – with more dates in the works.

The disability wallet card Will handed to the officer during the drill was created by the DuPage County Sheriff’s Department to help ease some of the frustration and communication issues for both the driver and the officer. Not every jurisdiction offers the card, so ask your local law enforcement agency if they offer something similar.

For more information about upcoming traffic stop drills with Marianjoy therapists and the DuPage County Sheriff’s department, call 630.909.6080

For more information about the drivers rehabilitation program at Marianjoy, check out: http://www.marianjoy.org/rehab-technology/marti/driver-rehab.aspx