When Dennis Debbaudt trains law enforcement officers about working with people who have autism, he never says exactly what a person with the disorder “will” do.
“Each person is unique and may act or react differently,” Debbaudt said. “It’s difficult for me to use the word ‘will.’ If I say people with autism ‘will do this,’ the next person with autism will prove me wrong.”
For two decades, Debbaudt has studied the interactions of law enforcement with children and adults with autism. A retired private investigator and father of a 32-year-old son with autism, he has dedicated much of his life to helping families of autistic individuals.
This weekend, Debbaudt will lead two free seminars for the Baton Rouge Autism Speaker Series sponsored by the local Junior League — a Friday session with law enforcement and a Saturday class with families and caregivers of people with autism.
A neurological disorder that affects the development of the brain, according to the Autism Society of America, autism will cause different behaviors among those with the diagnosis. Some have trouble communicating or understanding social cues, while others repeat certain behaviors, like rocking their bodies or moving their hands.
One in 68 children in the United States has autism, according to a report issued this year by the Centers for Disease Control, but the diagnosis rate was much lower when Debbaudt’s son was born.
“With television and movies and print articles and social media, there is a far greater understanding of what autism is than there was in the ’80s and early ’90s,” Debbaudt said. “I couldn’t expect people who had ever heard the word autism then.”
People with developmental disabilities, including those with autism, may have seven times more contact with law enforcement officers than the general population, Debbaudt said.
Debbaudt began studying law enforcement interactions with those who have autism decades ago after an encounter with police at a mall near Detroit, Michigan. His son, upset that he could not have a toy at a store, began screaming and laid himself on the floor. Debbaudt picked him up and carried him to the car.
Police quickly arrived on the scene to prevent what they thought was a kidnapping. Several shoppers had called.
“I was totally unprepared for that,” Debbaudt said. “I don’t blame people for calling 911 and reporting what they saw.”
Today, Debbaudt teaches law enforcement that interactions with children and adults who have autism may take more time, and he reminds them that the sensory details — lights, sirens and smells — of a crime scene may attract some people with autism and frighten others.
He also teaches these caretakers to be prepared by creating explanatory fliers to hand out to officers or by having the local 911 authorities place notes about an individual with autism living at their address so officers know what to expect before their arrival.
Creating a plan and reviewing it regularly is crucial, he said. Knowing the plan will help in stressful times.
“Police know their skills diminish in high-pressure situations,” he said. “What gets them through? Their training.”
Above all, Debbaudt wants the public to know that people with autism aren’t that different.
“People with autism want what we all want,” he said. “They want to work. They can be terrific employees, good friends. … If anyone’s curious about it, reach out and get some information and attend a meeting. Become curious. These are great individuals.”