Officers with the Camden County Police Department on Thursday became the first to take part in a yearlong effort to train law enforcers how to deal effectively and safely with situations involving people on the autism spectrum.
The training is being offered by Bancroft, a nonprofit based in South Jersey that provides specialized services for individuals with brain injuries, autism, and intellectual disabilities.
While officers with the county force were the initial trainees, Bancroft officials say they have invited departments from the 15 communities the organization serves to learn how to de-escalate budding problems and foster better understanding.
In addition to first responders such as police, Bancroft plans to offer training to others who deal with the public - for example, movie theater and restaurant employees.
The offer comes at an opportune time.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that the rate of autism among children in New Jersey has risen to 1 in 41, a 12 percent increase from 2014 and the highest in the country. The average rate nationally is 1 in 68.
Despite that growing rate, many people do not understand autism, which is a wide spectrum that encompasses a broad range of behaviors and abilities.
"They exhibit behaviors that may be unfamiliar to you," Bancroft president Toni Pergolin said at a news conference Thursday.
For people on the autism spectrum, those differences can include not making eye contact, getting upset if touched, or appearing to be upset or distressed.
Pergolin said Bancroft staff have been assaulted by members of the public who mistake their conduct toward an autistic person as inappropriate or hostile.
The result can be even more upsetting for the person with autism.
Pat Meade, a Burlington Township resident and the father of Daniel, 19, a Bancroft student and resident, told about the time his son got upset while they were at a party store. Meade said he hoisted his son onto his shoulders and took him for a ride to try to distract him.
Before long, he saw that three police cars were attempting to pull him over, believing they may have been dealing with an abduction.
Meade recommended trying to ascertain the situation before action.
"Be careful. Consult," he said.
If possible, the officers were told, ask if the individuals on the spectrum have a friend or guardian with them to help. Withdraw attention from the unwanted behavior or remove the person from the setting.
Karen Parenti, vice president of Community Solutions for Bancroft, said that sometimes the best course was to redirect the troublesome behavior.
Collingswood, Mount Laurel, and Medford have expressed interest in receiving the training.