PHOENIX, AZ- Police departments across the nation have begun prioritizing mental health training, teaching officers how to interact with subjects who may or may not be in a mental health crisis.
From my research, I’ve discovered that mental health training usually consists of lessons taught in a classroom setting, spanning from a few hours to a few days, and done every few years of so.
While current training is minimal, the topics covered are crucial: spanning from schizophrenia to depression to subjects with autism spectrum disorder.
One company determined that a few hours of classroom lessons were not fully sufficient for preparing officers to interact with subjects who may be in a crisis but respond differently to human interaction.
This company, VirTra, has developed a better training solution for officers on the subject of Autism.
VirTra provides police and military agencies with immersive training simulators that train in active shooter, use of force, de-escalation, domestic violence and “shoot/don’t shoot” situations, in addition to specialized training topics and curriculum.
The Autism Awareness is one such curriculum. It falls under VirTra’s V-VICTA™—Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy—program of certified curriculum, which provides departments with certified training hours when completed.
In order to provide the most meaningful, research-backed and realistic training, VirTra teamed up with the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) to develop the curriculum. This partnership resulted in training that provides officers with another tool for their toolbelt, because, according to their site:
“One of the biggest challenges for law enforcement is distinguishing Autistic behavior from those that mimic other behaviors they might come across, including indicators for drug or alcohol use and deceptive behavior.”
To maximize realism and skill transfer in training, VirTra’s Autism training scenarios feature actors that are on the spectrum. This helps teach officers learn how to successfully interpret cues and interact with the subject—both in the simulator and in the field.
The importance of law enforcement training on such a topic is clear: if officers misinterpret an autistic subject’s action, seeing it as threatening when in actuality the subject is behaving normally, someone could get unnecessarily hurt.
The Autism Awareness training is imperative, as it will avoid such scenarios. As explained in further detail on the website:
“If officers don’t understand how to recognize behaviors like stimming, it’s easy to interpret them as something else, such as drug use or aggressive movements that may pose a potential risk for the officer.
Rather than a threat, however, many of these behaviors are simply signs of a communication barrier or cognitive difference.”
This form of mental health training is invaluable to departments. Administrators and city officials will enjoy the impactful changes that can help mitigate lawsuits, while officers enjoy understanding how to properly interact with a subject on the spectrum.
“We want to leave a positive impact on the autism community” says Lon Bartel, VirTra’s Director of Training and Curriculum. “We hope that with this curriculum, law enforcement will be seen as an ally rather than a threat. By understanding the different behaviors and types of communication displayed by people on the spectrum, we can handle events differently.”
At the end of the day, law enforcement are there to help every member of the community, regardless if they are on the spectrum or not.
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