After several challenging encounters with people with autism, Glendale police officers are learning to identify symptoms of the disorder and diffuse tense situations involving autistic people.

About 18 months ago, officers responding to a robbery call attempted to stop a suspect running along Glendale Avenue when the man — who stood more than 6 feet tall, weighed 220 pounds and was wearing dark sunglasses — became physically combative and was unresponsive to their commands.

It was only after police subdued him with a Taser jolt that his frenzy subsided and his mental condition became apparent.

“He said, ‘I hurt’ and that he wanted his mommy,” Officer John Schmidt recalled Monday during a training session led by the nonprofit advocacy group Autism Speaks. “I just tried to console him. It was like you hurt a child. I felt horrible.”

Adults and children with autism, when panicked, are often unable to control physical outbursts or communicate verbally, said Kate Movius, a community educator for the group and mother of a 13-year-old boy with autism.

“They’re not resisting on purpose. The body does not obey the brain,” Movius told more than 30 officers assembled in the Glendale Police Department Community Room.

By keeping a relaxed demeanor, speaking in simple and direct sentences, allowing extra time to comply with commands, and enlisting the help of parents or caregivers, police may be able to calm an autistic person in distress and avoid physical confrontation, she said.

The workshop, including hypothetical calls for service and conversations with autistic children and their parents, was one of five autism training sessions for Glendale police this year, each attended by 20 to 30 patrol officers, said Sgt. Traci Fox.

Fox, who has an autistic family member, arranged the sessions with Autism Speaks through PTA members at College View School in Glendale, which serves special needs children from Glendale, Burbank and La Cañada Flintridge.

Glendale police often respond to suspected domestic disputes that arise from autism-related outbursts, calls about missing autistic children and reports of public fights that turn out to be caregivers restraining a person from self harm, said Fox. Officers also scuffled with an autistic man who became violent on a public bus, she said. 

Matt Asner, state executive director for Autism Speaks and father of a 10-year-old boy with autism, urged compassion and patience when dealing with autistic people in distress.

“You just need to find a way to communicate,” he said.

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Follow Joe Piasecki on Twitter: @JoePiasecki.

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