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Welcome to Innovation in the Burg, a podcast about science and innovation in St. Petersburg. If you’re a self-described science or technology geek, or even if you aren’t, this will be a fun and informative conversation. Each week, we’ll be joined by a local science or technology expert who will talk about what they’re working on. But to make sure we keep this in perspective and we don’t become too technical, we have a community member joining us. Our hope is that you learn something new and enjoy our conversation.

12/17/2019 | Episode 010 | 23:39

Innovation in The 'Burg: Autism Spectrum Training for Florida Police Officers

St. Pete Police, Johns Hopkins All Children's team up to help officers recognize autism spectrum disorder, learn de-escalation tactics

On this episode of Innovation in the 'Burg, Alison and guests dive into Johns Hopkins All Childrens' Autism Training Program. Johns Hopkins All Children's Dr. Lauren Gardner and St. Pete Police Department's Officer Carla Ramos share their perspectives on the innovative program that has helped train 330 officers from 22 departments in 2019 alone. The program trains officers throughout Florida to recognize the signs and symptoms of autism and to de-escalate crisis situations that could occur. It prevents wrongful arrests and Baker Acts through a single-day training including an interactive workshop in the morning and an optional simulation training with live actors.

Key Insights

  • Today's expert: Dr. Lauren Gardner, Administrative Director of the Autism Program and Psychology Internship Training Director at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.
  • Today's community member: Officer Carla Ramos, St. Petersburg Police Department.
  • The Autism Training Program is a single day training for law enforcement officers in the state of Florida. The program gives officers better knowledge and awareness of the signs and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and how to de-escalate situations that could occur when dealing with individuals on the Autism Spectrum.
  • The training provides a safe environment for officers to learn through training and simulation using trained actors, some of whom are on the autism spectrum.
  • Officers from St. Pete Police Department use the autism training in their everyday work. In fact, dispatch is trained to ask questions about autism prior to the arrival of the officer, so they can be prepared for what to expect during the call.
  • Why start the program? Johns Hopkins All Children's saw a need in the community for this training. Without training, law enforcement officers may mistake signs and symptoms of autism as suspicious behavior.
  • Behaviors like not responding to questioning, running away and avoiding eye contact are common for individuals with autism. Other restrictive and repetitive behaviors common to individuals with autism, like hand flapping or inspection of objects from unusual angles are sometimes mistaken for symptoms of drug use.
  • Gardner hopes that with this training, officers can avoid unnecessary arrests or Baker Acts of individuals with autism.
  • One example of the need for training: In 2016, a young man in Miami was with a behavioral aide and "stimming" with a toy truck when officers arrived. Officers mistook the toy truck for a gun and fired, intending to hit the young man with autism, but actually shooting his behavioral aide in the leg.
  • While Ramos has not encountered an individual with autism in her own work with St. Pete PD, she feels far more prepared to deal with the situation, if it were to arise, thanks to this training program.
  • Over the next few years, the goal is to expand the program to other first responders and school safety officers.
  • This year alone, the program has trained over 330 officers from 22 different departments, so attendees may not be training with someone they know, but they will be with colleagues.
  • Simulations can be from 10-20 minutes, depending on the skill of everyone involved. The debriefing takes the most time, to talk through what went well and what could go better next time.
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1 Reviews on this article

S. Rose Smith-Hayes
25. 12 2019, 09:06:1818
This is a start. This training may actually save lives. It has been a long time coming.

About the host

Alison Barlow is the Executive Director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District. Her role is to harness expertise in health science, marine science, education, and art to form unique collaborations. These multi-sector, cross discipline collaborations strive to identify innovative solutions that will grow the economic and social vibrancy of St. Petersburg and address key global issues. Alison grew up in St. Petersburg, graduated from Boca Ciega High School, received a Bachelors in Hospitality Administration from Florida State University, and later a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Management of Global Information Systems from American University in Washington D.C. For 17 years, Alison worked as a business and technology consultant based in Washington DC, often for the Department of Defense. She focused on strategic planning, process improvement and technology collaboration. Following her relocation back to St. Petersburg, Alison became the manager and a lead facilitator for Collaborative Labs at St. Petersburg College. Alison joined the St. Petersburg Innovation District as its inaugural Executive Director in June of 2017. In addition to her work, Alison is involved with the Leadership St. Petersburg Alumni Association, Friends of Strays Animal Shelter Board, and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.


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