UHP receives donations of autism sensory bag for challenging encounters

Oct 5, 2022, 5:11 PM | Updated: 10:55 pm

MURRAY, Utah — People with autism process experiences differently. So, encounters with law enforcement can easily spiral out of control. But, the Autism Council of Utah, and Doug Smith Subaru donated new tools to the Utah Highway Patrol to help calm those situations.

State troopers say it’s not unusual to interact with people on the autism spectrum.

“It’s pretty regular,” said Lieutenant Terry Buck with the Utah Highway Patrol. “I think probably more often than we even recognize at times.”

Troopers are trained to recognize autism and de-escalate those encounters. Now, they also have new tools to share with people with autism. Every trooper has an autism sensory bag with noise canceling headphones to cut the chaos for the person, and cue cards to help them communicate.

The autism council of Utah and Doug Smith Subaru donated 600 autism sensory bags for state troopers today.

“So, when they happen upon someone who has autism, who has sensory issues, they have some things to do, they have some things to de-escalate that situation, and they are going to run into somebody because Utah has a very high prevalence rate of autism,” Cheryl Smith, co-founder of the Autism Council of Utah said.

She has trained troopers on what to look for, and how to react.

“People who have autism usually have some intense sensory needs,” she said. “Even if they speak, they might lose their ability to speak. Their anxiety is super high. They might have a meltdown.”

“A lot of these individuals have that sensory overload,” Lt. Buck said. “So, we’re just trying to find ways to help them get back to a norm for them so we can interact with them.”

Trooper Tyler Johnson recently encountered a man with autism running into the road. When he saw the trooper, he started running at him, swinging at him.

“When they called it out, they said that he was autistic, and 10–0, which means approach with caution,” the trooper said.

Johnson took a calm, direct approach, kept the man safe, and told him he was not in trouble. Immediate recognition of the delicate situation helped.

“Being able to know that he was autistic allowed me to approach this situation a little bit differently, especially because of the training from last year,” Johnson said.

The trooper gave him something to hold and play with to reduce his anxiety.

“We got everyone calm, and everyone was safe,” the trooper said.

The UHP now uses his body camera video in training.

“It was a great learning experience,” Johnson said.

“We want officers and our families to have a win-win situation,” Smith said.

The Autism Council of Utah plans to get those sensory bags into the hands of all Utah first responders.

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UHP receives donations of autism sensory bag for challenging encounters