WHITESTOWN — When Kathy Caruso’s son was still in school, the lights and sounds of a routine fire drill caused the boy to cover his ears and lock up on the floor.
Unaware that the boy’s sensitivity to loud and sudden disruptions — a common characteristic shared among many individuals with autism — a member of the Sheriff’s Office at the school picked the boy up and carried him outside with the rest of the class. That was more than a decade ago, before knowledge of the autism spectrum was more mainstream and understood.
Now Caruso’s son is 26, and she is one of the administrators of Better Together, a not-for-profit organization that started as a local parent support group and now advocates for autism awareness in the community. Better Together has recently started training members of the Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies on how to better respond to people on the spectrum.
“Autism awareness is knowing that our individuals sometimes respond to typical sensory in a much different way,” Caruso said at the Law Enforcement Building on Judd Road on Wednesday.
“Many of the population of autism are non-communicative. A lot of them can speak, but it doesn’t mean that they can fully communicate. And it doesn’t mean that they fully understand commands. And I think that’s where a lot of
terrible things occur,” Caruso said.
“Because individuals with autism, it’s not that they’re wanting to be defiant, they just really cannot process everything that is happening as it’s happening,” Caruso stated. “So taking the initiative to learn what can help sensory-wise and what will make the situation better instead of escalating it is really a powerful thing.”
On Wednesday, for National Autism Awareness Month, Sheriff Robert M. Maciol unveiled a new magnetic patch that will be affixed to all marked patrol vehicles in the sheriff’s fleet. He also announced that 30 members of his staff have attended Better Together’s autism awareness training so far. “One area where we’ve definitely amped up our training is when we’re in a situation where people or children have autism. That’s one where, up until now, I’ve thought that we needed improvement on,” Maciol said.
“In many cases, if we react inappropriately, it can be a life or death situation. So I think it’s critical that law enforcement has recognized that and have begun to change that.”
Maciol said the basic training was focused “specifically on recognizing people with autism and how law enforcement can train for that, needs to respond, and, mostly importantly, how law enforcement needs to react.”
Along with the Autism Awareness campaign, Maciol also noted that the Sheriff’s Office already offers the free Project Lifesaver and Yellow Dot Program for families with members who are autistic or have dementia. There are at least 14 people across the county on the autism spectrum who are enrolled in Project Lifesaver, which provides a monitoring bracelet in case the person wanders off and gets lost.
“We don’t want the people with autism to be afraid of us. We want them to know that we’re here to help. We’re not here to hurt them or to make the situation worse,” Maciol said.
“And I think our first step is we have to teach our people what to recognize, and then we’ll advance into the next steps.”
Maciol said he hopes to get more of his officers into the training, and to move on to more advanced training. He said he hopes to be able to bring autistic people to the Sheriff’s Office once the pandemic has cleared to give them some first-hand interactions with law enforcement.
Maciol said his office has also discussed autism screenings for incoming inmates at the county jail.
“I’m going to guess that we’ve probably overlooked some of those folks with autism just because we weren’t trained enough to recognize it, and that’s something that we want to change going forward,” Maciol stated.
As for the general public, Kathy Caruso said there was one simple thing the average person could do to help others with autism: be kind.
“Please be as kind as you possibly can, knowing that that family is already going through a tremendous struggle. And kindness just goes a long way,” Caruso stated.
“And maybe not staring. And teaching your own children that we would never make fun of someone with any other type organ deficiency, or any other chronic illness. Autism is a problem in the brain and in the sensory functions and the nerves, and sometimes it’s just out of that person’s control, and out of the family’s control.”