Just two weeks ago, the Florida House unanimously passed a bill that would require Autism Awareness training for law enforcement officers.
The bill is now being looked over by the Florida Senate.
House Bill 39 would help officers recognize the symptoms and characteristics of Autism disorder.
Advocates for autistic people were pushing for more training for officers, since the police shooting in North Miami last summer left an unarmed therapist shot and injured while protecting his autistic client.
That Officer, Jonathan Aledda, was recently charged with attempted manslaughter in the third degree along with culpable negligence, a first-degree misdemeanor.
17-year-old Brianna Rodriguez-Neely has sensory and auditory processing disorders. Meaning common sounds may be overwhelming.
Brianna also has trouble speaking, which is why she's homeschooled. Doctors haven't diagnosed her with autism, but her condition is similar.
“It's very easy for strangers to misinterpret her behavior as being wild or she's misbehaving or not understand why she behaves in a certain way. That's just what makes Brianna special,” says Steffany Rodriguez-Neely, Brianna’s mother.
Steffany says she’s in support of the HB 39 passing.
“If she was grabbed by an officer. Harmlessly enough, if she gets scared and flares he could misinterpret that and it could be a very dangerous situation. So, it's very scary to think what could happen,” says Steffany.
I asked Brianna what she is most scared of, if she was confronted by an officer.
“I'm not really scared of much but if an officer does approach me. One of the things is I stutter and an officer may not understand why I’m doing it, it's just how I communicate. I can't get the words out completely. So, I’m not scared, I’m just nervous,” says Brianna.
The Tampa Police Department says they're already ahead of the game. Next month they're rolling out a new program that will help officers identify someone with autism and how to handle the situation.
“We think it's huge because the number of folks in the public with autism is on the increase. We don't want any situations where there is a misunderstanding based on someone having autism,” says Steve Hegarty, public information officer for Tampa police.
Hegarty says the department has been working with an organization called Engage, which develops individualized programs for children with autism and other behavior issues.
It’s not just training for officers but Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn also wants all city employees to learn how to handle situations involving people with autism.
I also reached out to St. Pete Police Department. They tell me autism is mentioned in their academy training but this summer, the department is launching a video training that will help all officers better recognize the symptoms and characteristics of Autism disorder.
Programs that make parents like Steffany, feel more secure.
“Just knowing that police officers now are becoming aware and able to look out for our children and handle them if there is an issue. It gives you a peace of mind that I think we were missing before,” says Steffany.
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