Month: November 2013

Police Learn About Autism, Gives Parents Much-Needed Respite Time

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Chesapeake police Officer Jennifer Land spent part of her shift on a recent Friday night watching children play at a bounce house.

One minute, she said hello to girls who walked in. The next, she sat on the floor, coaxing a reluctant boy into bouncing.

Land was working at Respite Nights, a program in Chesapeake for autistic children and their parents.

For two hours on the second Friday of each month, the children play at The Orb Family Fun Center. The parents get to relax, and the officers learn how to interact effectively with autistic people.

The number of children diagnosed with autism is rising – about 1 in 50 children, according to a study released earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Autism is a range of disorders characterized by social and communication problems. Some children will not respond to instructions or even their own names.

That can lead to issues for police. In February, an off-duty officer in New Jersey shot a 21-year-old autistic man after he ran toward the officer’s home and banged on his door. Last year, Chicago-area police fatally shot a 15-year-old autistic boy wielding a knife.

For those reasons, police in recent years have made autism training a priority. About seven years ago, Sgt. Shannon Wichtendahl of the Virginia Beach police joined with the Autism Society of Tidewater to start Respite Nights in her city.

The Chesapeake program started this spring. In both, children pair with volunteers, many of them high school students. But on a September Sunday night, Wichtendahl had police officers and sheriff’s deputies roaming the Bounce House on Lynnhaven Parkway in pajamas for a theme party.

Blake Swenson, a Virginia Beach sheriff’s deputy, said he knew little about autism before he started volunteering two years ago. He said Respite Nights helped show him how to be patient with autistic children.

“I’m a very in-your-face person,” Swenson said. “I needed to learn to take a step back.”

Dressed in pink pajamas, Wichtendahl cheerfully welcomed the 30 bouncers. Many autistic children are high-energy, and some did not relax for the next two hours. They raced from one station to the next, sliding down slides and excitedly exchanging high-fives.

“For kids, it gives them a chance to not be judged,” Wichtendahl said. “For officers, it gives us a chance to deal with kids who are going to be adults.”

In a similar program in Portsmouth, officers spend a few hours each week with autistic children at the Children’s Museum of Virginia.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said such programs have grown in recent years and teach valuable lessons.

For instance, she said, Richmond-area police last year found a missing boy by laying out a blanket, knowing he’d be drawn to it.

Land drove a school bus for eight years before becoming an officer, and her excitement interacting with children was evident.

On that Friday night, she smiled as a boy gave her a toy sword to hold. Without missing a beat, she high-fived a girl coming for a rest.

“I want to be a friendly face to them,” she said. “This gives them a way of seeing, ‘I can go to an officer.’ ”