Sen. Suzio: “I know what parents of autistic children deal with.”

April 19, 2017

HARTFORD — A bill requiring police to undergo training on how to handle wandering autistic children continues to make its way through the legislature, clearing the House last week.

The bill, which the House approved 146-1, now awaits a vote from the Senate. Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, was the lone dissenter.

Prior to the vote, the House approved an amendment to return the bill back to its original focus, requiring police to undergo training on how to interact with autistic children or those with other nonverbal diagnoses.

Close Harbour in Southington approved for outdoor dining patio two years after fire
The Public Safety and Security Committee had altered the bill to include training for all intellectual and developmental disabilities, but Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, who introduced the bill, said police already undergo training for some of those.

She said police in many towns, though, need training on how to interact with people who can’t communicate verbally because of a disability. She said the training program should include a better understanding of the autism spectrum.

Autistic children are drawn towards water, Linehan said as an example, and part of a department’s response for calls when an autistic person has wandered from home should be to identify local bodies of water.

The National Autism Association states on its website that accidental drowning accounts for 90 percent of deaths in cases involving autistic children 14 years old or younger who wander away from a safe environment.

Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, said he plans to support the bill now that it heads to the Senate. Like Linehan, Suzio has an autistic relative. “I know what parents of autistic children deal with,” he said.

He said those who have no experience with an autistic person, particularly those who don’t communicate verbally, may not know how to build a relationship.

The training would include understanding best practices, and Linehan said many departments should follow the lead of Cheshire’s police.

The department maintains a voluntary registry, and parents of autistic children can provide pictures and information on interests. “That can help the officer have a rapport or find them and know where to go and know the things that they like,” Linehan said.

The bill comes in response to a September incident involving Logan Gibbons, 15, who ran away from his Southington home in early September and was later found in Cheshire.

Police received a call about a boy outside a home holding an ax, but police relied on the training to determine that Gibbons was autistic and holding a toy. Cheshire police and the Police Officers Association of Connecticut, which represents 1,200 officers in 22 municipalities, have backed the bill.

Suzio said support from the police shows the value of the training even if it does present a possible cost, albeit one that’s “not a budget-buster.”

“The benefit is so much more important, and it outweighs the cost,” he said.