Nfld. & Labrador

Volunteer autism registry meant to improve relations with police

Supporters of a new volunteer registry for people with autism say it will improve safety for those with ASD and lead to more constructive interactions with members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

Goal of program is to improve safety, communication between police and those with autism

A new registry for people with autism was announced in St. John's Thursday. Among those taking part in the announcement were, from left, Elaine Dobbin, patron and honorary board member of the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, RNC Chief William Janes, Autism Society president John Barry, and RNC Insp. Barry Constantine. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Supporters of a new volunteer registry for people with autism say it will improve safety for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and lead to more constructive and informed interactions with members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

The registry was announced Thursday during a news conference at the Elaine Dobbin Centre for Autism in St. John's.

It's a one-year pilot project for the St. John's region, and is the result of a partnership between the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador and the RNC.

It's the latest step in an effort to improve relations between individuals and families with ASD and the police, and follows a high-profile incident in 2009 where an officer detained a young man with autism, believing he was drunk and belligerent.

The RNC later apologized for the incident, and officers now receive sensitivity training from the autism society.

Safety for those who are vulnerable

John Barry, president of the Austism Society, Newfoundland and Labrador (ASNL), said it's all about improving safety for those who may be more vulnerable.

"There are situations that can occur where timely information about that particular individual and what they can and cannot do, or may or may not be able to cope with ... can make all the difference in an emergency situation," said Barry.

RNC Chief William Janes said it's difficult to say if a registry would have prevented the 2009 incident.

However, Janes said he spoke with the family involved this week, and received their support for the program.

Information at their fingertips

Those who chose to register will be able to do so beginning Monday morning by visiting the autism society's website at http://www.autism.nf.net/.

The information will then be provided to the RNC, allowing officers to access information on computers in their patrol vehicles. 

The registry mirrors others that have been launched in other jurisdictions across Canada.

It is designed to give officers critical information that can be quickly accessed during an encounter with someone with autism, including contact information, known routines and destinations, and the special needs of the person.

It could also assist officers if someone goes missing.

Those who register will also be issued an identity card.

Unpredictable behaviour

There are roughly 2,000 children and youth in this province with ASD, and a similar number of adults.

Scott Crocker, executive director with the society, said other registries across Canada have been well-received.

He could not say say what percentage of people with ASD will eventually register, but noted "we're very much looking forward to a lot of uptake."

Crocker also countered suggestions that the registry will further stigmatize those with autism.

He emphasized that it is voluntary, and it's important to focus on the purpose behind the registry.

It's to enable us to work with the RNC to very quickly get information that will help solve a particular situation.- Scott Crocker

"It's to enable us to work with the RNC to very quickly get information that will help solve a particular situation," he said.

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, and can impact a person's social interactions and communications skills. In some cases, a person with autism could become aggressive or try to harm themselves.

Officers trained to meet force with force could chose a different tactic if they have detailed information.

By knowing a person's likes and dislikes, for example, an officer could possibly avoid a physical confrontation.

"It's about providing the best service possible to people with ASD," said Janes.

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