Wayne Stuart worries about his grandson.
Adam Foster, 15, has autism and while he’s a smart and clever young man, Stuart said he fears Foster’s struggle communicating could turn into a violent confrontation with a police officer.
“My greatest fear is to have my grandson to be injured or harmed because the understanding isn’t there,” Stuart said.
Stuart wanted a way for Foster to tell officers and others about his autism, so he turned to Fort Worth and Keller school district officials. Together, they developed an autism identification card that Stuart hopes will catch on. The ID cards will be used in the Keller district, where Foster is a sophomore at Fossil Ridge High School. The district has about 630 students with autism.
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To help improve communication between autistic children and adults, information about a student’s autism, techniques for talking to them and things that may trigger them, such as flashing lights or loud noises, will be printed on the back of Keller student identification cards. Combined with classroom training and police training, Stuart hopes to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Police officers statistically are more likely to interact with a person with autism than other people would, Fort Worth Assistant Police Chief Kenneth Dean told Fort Worth city council members recently.
“Those interactions can often times become violent if an officer misreads some of the cues,” he said.
Dean said untrained officers may interpret signs of autism as something else. People with autism can be jittery, rock back and forth, repeat words and struggle to communicate — all behaviors similar to someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he said. Misunderstanding police commands may be interpreted as noncompliance.
Properly understanding the differences and knowing how to communicate with autistic children may help save a life, Dean said. The department has started a training program with MHMR Tarrant County and has built autism interactions into the crisis intervention lessons.
“We can prevent people from going to jail, officers from getting hurt and people who have done nothing wrong other than having to live in their environment from getting hurt,” he said.
This problem isn’t uncommon in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
A Waxahachie mother is suing police and school district officials after an officer struggled with her 8-year-old son in a special needs classroom at Felty Elementary School. Body camera footage shows the officer pulling the boy’s arms behind him and then pulling him down to the ground.
Earlier this year, Graham police used a stun gun on a 19-year-old with autism.
“It’s the kind of thing that keeps a parent up at night,” Stuart said.
Stuart moved Foster to Fort Worth four years ago from New Rochelle, New York, because he thought Texas schools would be more responsive to helping his grandson.
When Stuart first pitched his idea, he had no response. Calls to several police department officials weren’t fruitful, he thinks, because officers didn’t fully understand what he was looking for.
He then reached out to Councilman Cary Moon and the pair met last December.
“He had a problem, but he also had a solution,” Moon said.
Stuart said he’s impressed with how quickly the idea has taken hold.
“Not even a year later, we have the beginnings of a real program,” he said.
The concept is similar to what Foster’s teacher, Dezarary Ramos, has done for years.
Shortly after starting at Fossil Ridge, the special needs teacher began taping a typed sentence about her students’ autism to the back of their IDs.
“We’re beyond duct tape now,” she said. “I would hope this becomes an official thing that goes statewide.”
As part of her class, Ramos helps each student find the best way to communicate and teaches him or her how to talk to other adults.
Communication is key, Ramos said.
Keller will test the IDs for about 10 weeks before police will ask other Fort Worth school districts to join. Stuart wants to see the program expand beyond autism to other mental health conditions.
“I want to give him all the ammunition, all the resources he needs to rise up and meet his challenges,” Stuart said. “If this helps him, it could certainly help others like him,” he said.