Texas DPS announces expansion of law enforcement officer training related to communication, autism

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Law enforcement officers within the Texas Department of Public Safety will soon learn how to better interact with individuals living with communication impediments during traffic stops, agency officials announced Monday.

The new officer training is part of a wider initiative from several governmental and nonprofit organizations aiming to raise awareness on how to better communicate with individuals living along the autism spectrum who may have difficulties interacting with law enforcement.

“We are pleased to offer these new training initiatives, which will be powerful tools in enhancing understanding of law enforcement, as well as help prepare and [build] confidence in potential drivers,” said Major Jason Hester from the DPS Education, Training and Research Division.

DPS officials announced the new training program at a press conference alongside the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities and Aspergers101, a nonprofit advocating for individuals living with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

Biology sophomore Shiv Desai, treasurer in UT’s Texas Neurodiversity group, said his organization — which advocates for the mental wellbeing of all individuals — has discussed how ableism forces some autistic individuals to conform to the environment around them in uncomfortable situations.

The new officer trainings will combat this problem by teaching officers how to interact with autistic individuals rather than forcing them to conform to a mold they do not fit in, Desai said.

“If [someone] gets pulled over by an officer and [they’re] avoiding eye contact, that could be seen as suspicious,” Desai said. “We want to fight that. We want to say that a lot of these individuals communicate differently, and just because they communicate differently doesn’t mean they don’t want to be there or they don’t want to talk.”

While officials work to better train officers, the DPS is trying to spread awareness that individuals diagnosed with certain medical conditions — such as autism spectrum disorders, stuttering or hearing impairment — have the option to request that a communication impediment notice be placed on their driver’s license or another form of state identification.

This voluntary designation informs officers of an individual’s communication impediment when officers request a license and registration during traffic stops, Aspergers101 CEO Jennifer Allen said.

“You don’t have to put this on your driver’s license if you have autism; it’s if you want to,” Allen, whose son lives with Asperger’s, said. “Many times, this is very often the reason many people don’t drive — because they are very frightened of what could be misconstrued communication when being pulled over by law enforcement officers.”

DPS officials are also working alongside Aspergers101 in setting up summer camps that aim to teach individuals living along the autism spectrum how to better communicate with law enforcement officers during stops and other interactions. The camps, as well as the overall new initiative, are expected to be completed and in effect later this year, officials said.

“Like my son said at the press conference, he feels safer just having a safety net,” Allen said. “I am so proud of all these gentlemen who have made this happen for our citizens and just coming in at the end of Autism Awareness Month, I just think it’s great.”