Dennis Debbaudt

by Sue Ann Rybak

The third article in a four-part series

Dennis Debbaudt was shopping at a toy store in the mall when his son became upset.

“I wasn’t willing to buy him the $300 battery-operated car,” Debbaudt said. “I was willing to buy him a Matchbox car.”

That resulted in a complete meltdown.

Debbaudt had no choice but to pick up his son and carry him out to the car. As he was buckling his son in his car seat, Debbaudt suddenly found himself surrounded by mall security officers.

The security guards were responding to 911 calls about a possible child abduction.

The guards’ attempt to question Debbaudt’s son, who has autism, only escalated his behavior.

“Yeah, I was angry at the time,” said Debbaudt. “But when I took a deep breath and thought about it, I didn’t blame them for making the call.”

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum disorder” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.

The incident ignited a desire by Debbaudt to educate law enforcement officials on how to interact with individuals with autism.

Debbaudt is a professional investigator and law enforcement trainer, whose training video “Autism and Law Enforcement Roll Call Briefing Video” is used by the Department of Homeland Security, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Philadelphia Police Department and hundreds of other agencies.

Recently, he presented two informational sessions for families, educators and professionals at the National Autism Conference held in State College, Pa., from July 31 to Aug. 2.

Research has shown that the developmentally disabled are approximately seven times more likely to come in contact with law enforcement personnel than others.

“The person is not going to stop having autism once the police are on the scene,” Debbaudt said.

“People with autism do not know the implications of their behavior – they don’t understand the consequences of their actions, especially aggressive actions.”

Debbaudt said first responders should be prepared to invest some time and – whenever possible – allow individuals with autism to calm themselves down.

He noted that when communicating with someone with autism, individuals should speak slowly, using simple language that is free of joking, slang, colloquialisms and figures of speech.

“Many people with autism will take your cues as what to do themselves,” Debbaudt said. “In some cases, whatever you say may be repeated literally to you.”

Debbaudt said people often interrupt this behavior as a sign of disrespect or mocking. People with autism may not understand even when you use simple language.

“For example, the Miranda rights are pretty straightforward,” Debbaudt said. “In our training video we ask people with autism who are high-functioning ‘do you waive your right to remain silent?’ and their reaction was to wave their right hand.”

Debbaudt said that while “we can’t expect someone to field diagnose someone’s autism,” when it is necessary to restrain people to protect them from harming themselves or others, first responders “should be aware that a part of this population may have some form of seizure disorder.”

“They may have low muscle tone, which would cause asphyxiation if they are face down with pressure on their back,” he added..

Have a plan

Caretakers of autistic individuals, he said, should have a preparation and response plan in place since people with autism have a propensity to wander.

Debbaudt said parents of people with autism should reach out to members of their community, such as the police department and immediate neighbors, because the more information police and other emergency personnel have when they’re responding to a call the less likely someone is going to get hurt.

For example, most people with autism will react negatively to police sirens and flashing lights. Debbaudt said when police are armed with the knowledge that someone has autism they can attempt to manage the individual’s sensory environment and be aware of how sights, sounds, odors, touch can affect someone’s behavior.

A 2011 survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, Bureau of Autism Services (BAS), found that 50 percent of autistic individuals who had police contact were hospitalized at some point. Aggression was the most common reason for hospitalization.

Police are often called in to investigate suspicious behavior. Often, an autistic person may have wandered out of his or her *neighborhood. Many people with autism self-stimulate when under stress. This behavior is often characterized by hand-flapping, finger-flicking, body rocking, twirling and repetitive speech. Unfortunately, people with autism are often suspected being drunk, hostile or defiant.

Debbaudt encouraged parents and caregivers of people with autism to think about disclosure in a variety of ways, such as an informational sheet, identification cards and online databases.

“I think registries are one of the answers to safer law enforcement contact,” Debbaudt said. “It gives them a roadmap to how that person may communicate or what sets them off. The Ottawa (Canada) Police Autism Registry is a great example of that.”

Research has found that as individuals with autism age, they are increasingly likely to have police contact.

Debbaudt said there is an urgent need for professionals, – especially first responders – to be trained in dealing with individuals with autism. He added that the autism explosion is “affecting the American Social Infrastructure, and a key part of that infrastructure is law enforcement and safety.”

A system in crisis

Nina Wall-Cote, director of the Bureau of Autism Services for the office of Developmental Programs at DPW, said one of the biggest hurdles from preventing adults with autism from being in a crisis situation is that “when individuals with autism reach the age of 21, the entitlements stop and unless someone is in a waiver they are no longer eligible for services.”

“It’s a heartbreaking thing to have to look a mom or dad in the eye and say your very wonderful, capable, talented kid that we invested resources in is going to reach the age of 21, and the bus isn’t going to show up anymore because the program isn’t available,” Wall-Cote said.

She said an even more alarming problem is that “as staggering as those numbers (from the DPW) are, it’s a low ball.”

The problem is that there are people (adults with autism) out there who are not receiving services because there was no way to get them into the system at the time,” Wall-Cote said.

She said when an individual with autism is in a crisis, it can look very menacing. Law enforcement officials are often called in, and the individual ends up in the hospital.

“But,” she added, “if you are trained how to deescalate someone with autism, it can take five minutes to get someone back on track.”

Wall-Cote said the state hopes to avert some of the “really horrible outcomes” through proper support services and training. She said there are were some incidents of individuals with autism “intersecting with the criminal justice system because they were brought in on sex offenses.”

“And once someone is in the system, it is very, very hard to redirect a good outcome,” she said.

For more information about emergency preparedness and autism go to Autism Safety Project at