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posted: 6/26/2017 5:30 AM

DuPage sheriff, Marianjoy hospital launch class for drivers with autism

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  • Video: Police Interaction Course

  • "To be hands-on like this makes more of an impression on him," said Florence Reedy of her son Ed, who participated in a course that instructors say is the first of its kind in the area.

      "To be hands-on like this makes more of an impression on him," said Florence Reedy of her son Ed, who participated in a course that instructors say is the first of its kind in the area.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

Ed Reedy gripped the steering wheel as DuPage County sheriff's Cpl. Cliff Seward peppered him with questions.

The traffic stop could distress any driver, let alone a 24-year-old with autism who can't always interpret social cues.

But Reedy kept calm, polite. And when the encounter was over, the College of DuPage student stepped out of the SUV to applause.

Turns out Reedy was in the driver's seat for a mock exercise at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton.

Sheriff's deputies and the hospital's occupational therapists last week launched the first of what they hope will become a series of classes designed to better prepare drivers with developmental disorders should they be pulled over.

The course also helps police recognize how teens and 20-somethings on the autism spectrum react to stress and overstimulation.

The concern? A traffic stop could quickly escalate if police mistake certain behaviors for signs of aggression or a refusal to cooperate.

DuPage County sheriff's Cpl. Ed Castillo simulates a traffic stop with Ed Reedy, a 24-year-old from Bloomingdale. Sheriff's deputies and therapists at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital designed the new course to prepare drivers with autism for encounters with police.
  DuPage County sheriff's Cpl. Ed Castillo simulates a traffic stop with Ed Reedy, a 24-year-old from Bloomingdale. Sheriff's deputies and therapists at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital designed the new course to prepare drivers with autism for encounters with police. - Mark Black | Staff Photographer

"We're hoping to also educate the sheriff's department that just because someone has a diagnosis of autism doesn't mean they're going to present in this one way," said Brandon Lesch, a Marianjoy occupational therapist.

With that in mind, sheriff's deputies worked with Marianjoy to create an informational card they want special-needs drivers to present to officers in the event of a traffic stop. On the card, drivers can make note of the gestures and behaviors they exhibit under stressful situations and their emergency contacts.

Police "should take the time to read it, know that there's a special circumstance here, and they're going to help you get through the traffic stop a lot easier with less anxiety," sheriff's Cpl. Mike Urso told students in the first class last Wednesday.

The DuPage County sheriff's office worked with Marianjoy to create an informational card that lets drivers list their emergency contact and special needs.
  The DuPage County sheriff's office worked with Marianjoy to create an informational card that lets drivers list their emergency contact and special needs. - Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Deputies and therapists tested the course on four graduates of Marianjoy's Driver Rehabilitation Center. Roughly 1,000 people of a variety of ages and abilities participate in the training program each year.

Most of the teenagers learning to drive have high-functioning autism and work one-on-one with therapists.

The police course takes the same approach. In a hospital conference room, deputies first gave an overview of a routine stop and tips: Slow down, try to pull over in a parking lot and let the officer know if you're going to reach for a wallet to retrieve your license.

"You guys will get a little anxiety," Urso told the students. "It's normal. It's OK. We're going to work through it."

DuPage County sheriff's Cpl. Ed Castillo explains the procedures of a traffic stop for graduates of the Marianjoy Driver Rehabilitation Center and their families at the hospital's Wheaton campus.
  DuPage County sheriff's Cpl. Ed Castillo explains the procedures of a traffic stop for graduates of the Marianjoy Driver Rehabilitation Center and their families at the hospital's Wheaton campus. - Mark Black | Staff Photographer

The group then headed to a parking lot with Marianjoy and police vehicles on the grounds of the Wheaton campus. Urso sat in the back seat of the red SUV, giving instructions and helping put each driver at ease during two scenarios.

In the first, the deputy conducting the stop was cordial and let each driver off with an oral warning. In the second, the deputy flipped on a loud siren from his vehicle.

"The main goal is to make you more comfortable, learn how to better communicate your needs with the police officer and, overall, keep you and the police officer safe," Lesch told the drivers and their families.

The exercise took out the intimidation factor for Rod Hooton, a 20-year-old from Wheaton who earned his license last year.

"Respect the officer," Hooton said. "He's just doing his job."

The course helps foster empathy between special-needs drivers and police. "They're telling me their emotions going through this, and sometimes for us as police officers, it's hard to put ourselves in their shoes," DuPage County sheriff's Cpl. Ed Castillo said.
  The course helps foster empathy between special-needs drivers and police. "They're telling me their emotions going through this, and sometimes for us as police officers, it's hard to put ourselves in their shoes," DuPage County sheriff's Cpl. Ed Castillo said. - Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Reedy's mom, Florence, said the hands-on course likely made more of an impression than her advice about how to interact with police. She imagines her son would still feel nervous in a real-life stop.

But now, she said, "he'll be able to cope."

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