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Ogden PD launches program to boost awareness of autistic community

By Tim Vandenack - | Jul 21, 2022

Tim Vandenack, Standard-Examiner

Stacy Bernal, right, and her son Haiden McCaig in the teen's room at their Ogden home on Tuesday, July 19, 2022. Bernal worked with the Ogden Police Department in creating the Ogden Autism Awareness Enrollment Program, meant to aid authorities when responding to incidents involving autistic people, like her son.

OGDEN — Stacy Bernal, mindful of a shooting of an autistic 13-year-old by Salt Lake City police that sparked headlines in 2020, has had plenty of conversations with her own autistic son about dealing with law enforcement.

“We’ve talked about how he needs to be careful,” she said. “The first thing you have to say is, ‘I’m autistic.’ He knows he has to be careful.”

The Ogden woman’s efforts, though, haven’t been limited to conversations with her 17-year-old son, Haiden McCaig. More recently, she approached Ogden authorities about creating a program to bolster awareness of the autistic community among first responders. The Ogden Police Department announced last week the efforts had paid off with creation of the Autism Awareness Enrollment Program.

Using a similar program launched last April by the Clearfield Police Department as a model, the new initiative allows autistic people to get on a police department registry, so first responders will be aware of their condition if called to an incident that involves them. The aim is to prevent misunderstanding or miscommunication that could lead to an unnecessarily explosive encounter between first responders and the neurodivergent population.

“Police officers, we’re human, we respond with the information we know,” said Capt. Tim Scott, the Ogden Police Department official who worked with Bernal in creating the new program.

Tim Vandenack, Standard-Examiner

Stacy Bernal, left, and her son Haiden McCaig outside their Ogden home on Tuesday, July 19, 2022. Bernal worked with the Ogden Police Department in creating the Ogden Autism Awareness Enrollment Program, meant to aid authorities when responding to incidents involving autistic people, like her son.

That is, if responding to an incident involving someone who flees or seems to exhibit aggressive or noncompliant behavior, police may respond one way, not knowing anything else. Knowing they’re dealing with an autistic person, however, first responders can adjust their response.

“Knowledge is power when we respond to a scene like that,” Scott said.

Put simply, knowing more about the people they’ll be dealing with gives responders a “heads up,” said Bernal, who also leads a group called Awesome Autistic Ogden that aims to bolster awareness and acceptance of autistic people. “They can go into a situation and have that in the back of their mind — this person might respond differently.”

If authorities are called to an incident involving a person on the new Ogden Police Department autism registry, dispatchers will be flagged and convey the information to police, firefighters or other first responders handling the matter. The sign-up form is online with more information available at bit.ly/3Or7F6C.

In the 2020 Salt Lake City incident, the 13-year-old’s mom told police her son was having some sort of mental health episode, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The incident ended with the teen severely injured after being shot 11 times by police.

Tim Vandenack, Standard-Examiner

Stacy Bernal, right, and her son Haiden McCaig in the teen's room at their Ogden home on Tuesday, July 19, 2022. Bernal worked with the Ogden Police Department in creating the Ogden Autism Awareness Enrollment Program, meant to aid authorities when responding to incidents involving autistic people, like her son.

Bernal called that a worst-case scenario, while Scott said the new enrollment program isn’t the only effort in Ogden to bolster officers’ ability to better respond to incidents involving the neurodivergent community. He noted training specifically geared to helping police identify when they may be dealing with an autistic person, and how to best respond.

“In everything, we want better outcomes. We spend a lot of time training and working hard, and on autism alone, we’ve done a mandated training in autism awareness and mental illness for every one of our officers in the last year,” Ogden Police Chief Eric Young said in a video announcing the new autism enrollment program.

State legislation passed in 2021, House Bill 334, requires that all police officers in Utah get training in autism awareness and mental illness, though Ogden police efforts to raise autism awareness predate that. In fact, the number of people on the autistic spectrum is noteworthy and growing, perhaps through better detection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that one of every 44 8-year-old kids has autism spectrum disorder, up from one of 54 in 2016, according to University of Utah experts.

Bernal lauded the police department’s efforts with regard to the autistic community. “They really are making efforts to learn more and be proactive more than reactive,” she said.

Bernal’s son, for his part, lauded his mom’s efforts. “It’s cool,” he said.

Bernal is a running for the nonpartisan District 2 seat on the Ogden School Board, challenging incumbent Douglas Barker. Election Day is Nov. 8.

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