Washington Township residents will have tangible evidence of April as Autism Awareness Month, courtesy of stickers from the township police.
The department will issue what it calls autism occupant stickers to families that can be placed on the front door or a car window, alerting police to the presence of a resident on the autism spectrum. The stickers — available starting April 1 at police headquarters — are part of the department’s Community Care-Taking campaign.
According to Chief of Police Partick M. Gurcsik, the campaign has unique benefits for township residents.
“When I became police chief in 2017, we adopted some recommendations in President Barack Obama’s report on crime that suggested the police department should be more involved in community outreach and community policing,” he explained.
“So we changed our mission statement here a little bit to include what we refer to as ‘community caretake,’ and that’s just putting ourselves in the community 100 times more than we used to in the past. It’s a big part of our mission and our philosophy here in Washington Township.”
Gurcsik said the sticker effort will make both police and residents aware of autism’s challenges.
“We have to be aware of challenges that some of our residents face, and we must be prepared to help them in a way that might not be conventional,” he said. “So autism training is a step in the right direction to give our officers another tool in their toolbox, to help them understand the many challenges that our friends with autism face.”
Since the police are often first responders to emergencies, the chief noted, officers must have a working knowledge of autism and its wide variety of behaviors. The stickers will help them do that.
Washington Township police have also had special training to help recognize behavioral patterns and have additional sensitivity when engaging with people who have autism, including how to speak to a person on the spectrum.
“Our officers recently received for the first time autism training … specialized training and tactics for dealing with subjects on the autism spectrum,” Gurcsik said. “Our police learned that people with autism spectrum disorder may show no outward signs of their condition. Their actions and responses may be misunderstood. So, we thought it was good for our officers to have this training.
“It taught them what a person may do when they see a police officer.”
Some with autism may sense danger, he added, or may be overwhelmed by a police response. They may fear a person in uniform.
“They may be fixated on a badge, whistle, handcuffs or a police officer’s gun,” the chief added. “They may not respond to the word stop, they may be delayed and avoid eye contact. This is all information that’s good for the police officer to learn and understand.
“We practice de-escalation here in Washington Township.”