Elgin police to hold event honoring Autism Acceptance Month
Sporting a blue badge in honor of Autism Acceptance Month, Elgin police Cmdr. Eric Echeverria said some recent training had a personal meaning for him and others in the department.
The two-hour sessions this month are geared toward improving police encounters with people with autism. Addison police Sgt. Stefan Bjes, who has autistic children, is conducting the training. Echeverria has a younger brother, Joey, who is autistic.
"As he's talking I was like, 'Wow, I lived through that. I see that, I understand that," Echeverria said.
The training is part of the Elgin Police Department's effort to "be more intentional" when it comes to understanding the challenges people with autism face when dealing with the police, Echeverria said.
The department also is partnering with the Autism Hero Project to host the first Heroes Unite outdoor event from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. It will be in front of the police department and feature child and community partner activities, information and resources, sensory areas and an "interactive traffic stop assimilation demonstration," to help individuals living with autism to feel comfortable and prepared for interactions with the police.
"During an interaction with someone with autism, it is easy for officers to misinterpret the characteristics associated with the disability as someone being under the influence, uncooperative, or aggressive toward the officer," Bjes said. "Having officers understand the behaviors and characteristics associated with autism will give the ability to recognize this can allow the officer to have a positive interaction with that person."
"Maybe not today but someone in this class may have contact with one of my two sons," Bjes said. "I want to make sure officers have the best information and resources available to have a safe and positive interaction with them."
Elgin police Officer Robby Soberano said his perspective changed when his 9-year-old son Benjamin was diagnosed with autism.
"It's changed me and the way I work and the way I approach people, especially those in crisis," Soberano said. "It's very important to realize that this person might have something going on aside from the act that is happening."
Echeverria said the idea for the traffic stop simulation came from a conversation with celebrity Jenny McCarthy, who lives in St. Charles and will attend Saturday's event. Echeverria connected with McCarthy, who has a son with autism, through a mutual friend and asked her what she thought would be beneficial.
"She said young adults with autism get their driver's license but don't want to drive because they're often nervous and scared of a police encounter," he said.
In the 10-minute simulation, an officer will talk to the person with autism what is about to happen, then the driver will sit in a car that isn't running in front of a parked squad car. The officer will turn on the lights and sirens before approaching the window and going through a typical traffic stop.
"It's very simple but in our conversations, we've learned it's something that's really needed," Echeverria said.
EPD partnered with the Autism Hero Project, a suburban group who's website says their purpose is to "prepare kids with autism for the world and prepare the world for them," to get a better understanding of how the police can collaborate with that community, Echeverria said.
Hero Project President Tamika Lechee Morales said the group was more than ready to jump in to the partnership.
Morales said there are many scenarios involving police and the autistic community that can have unnecessary negative outcomes.
"There's a need for our (autism) community and our police departments to come together," she said.