April is National Autism Awareness Month, a time where we shine an important spotlight on the developmental disability that affects many in this country and around the world. Though the exact causes of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are still uncertain, doctors, experts and activists are feverishly working on raising awareness and aiding in research, diagnosis and treatment of the complex disorder.
At the Broward Sheriff’s Office, we are always working on providing special attention to individuals with ASD and other special needs by instituting proactive programs and initiatives—and undergoing special training aimed at assisting this special population.
One of my personal favorite programs is the Autism in Flight program, which provides a full airport experience in a relaxed setting for individuals about to embark on their first flight. Children and their families check in, go through security, walk the terminal to their gate, board a jetBlue plane and experience a “take-off.” It truly is a special experience.
BSO is also in the community at other special events. During the annual Autism Awareness Day, people affected with autism are given an opportunity to learn about the resources available to them, meet with our first responders in full uniform and see their emergency vehicles and equipment in a non-threatening environment. We’re also huge supporters and participants in the annual Surfers for Autism event, where hundreds of children with autism and developmental delays receive the chance to surf in a safe and secure environment.
Yet BSO’s support for this community goes even further. I’m thrilled to have supported historic legislation my good friends Ellen Kleinert and husband Jerry Cohn tirelessly worked to get passed into Florida law: the Wes Kleinert Fair Interview Act. It is named after Kleinert’s autistic son and is the first of its kind in the country. The law requires a mental health expert be present during police interviews of developmentally disabled victims, witnesses or suspects. It also makes it easier for authorities to know who may need such assistance by creating a voluntary new designation on state identification cards.
Finally, I’m excited to share one of BSO’s biggest and most innovative initiatives. In our ongoing efforts to provide better service and help keep individuals with special needs safer, we recently launched the BSO Special Needs Program. It gives parents or caregivers of individuals with special needs an opportunity to opt in to the program by voluntarily providing biographical information, including a description of the individual’s diagnosis and behavior, which will be captured to improve interactions with first responders.
The program will help 911 communications operators convey the critical information to the responding deputy so they can respond more effectively and efficiently. This information can help dispel any concern should the person seem aloof, uncooperative or even in crisis—leading to more positive outcomes. The program is currently in a pilot phase but will ultimately be rolled out countywide.
If you’d like to learn more about our efforts, please visit us on our community resource page at sheriff.org.
Sheriff Scott Israel