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This police department's autism unit is saving lives


Family members of people with profound autism or dementia face unique caregiving challenges. One of them is a concern their loved one will get lost. When a person with autism wanders away from their caregiver or their home, there can be dire - even deadly - consequences. Well, that did not happen to the six people who eloped, as it's sometimes called, this past Tuesday in Montgomery County, Md., and that is thanks to a unique program with the Montgomery County Police Department. It's the brainchild of officer Laurie Reyes, and she joins me now.

LAURIE REYES: Hi. Hi there. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Tell me a little bit more about what happened on Tuesday in Montgomery County.

REYES: So first, thank you for saying profound autism because autism is a spectrum. And in this case, we had multiple incidences of our officers or the community locating individuals who had autism that were at immediate risk - locating them before, in many cases, their caregivers had called 911 to report.

KELLY: What's the mechanism? Like, how do your officers know? How do they help get them back to where they're going to be safe?

REYES: So first and foremost is, when we train our officers, I use a little catchphrase. I say, think autism - meaning you get the call for the individual that's in the middle of the street, and maybe they're stimming. That officer will think, wow, that might be an individual with autism as opposed to someone who - maybe they would misinterpret as under the influence of something. It is training and experience that's led us to have these positive, safe interactions and reuniting with loved ones.

KELLY: Hmm. Is six cases in a single day in your county an unusually high number?

REYES: It is. We usually average about three to eight a week.

KELLY: And without getting into details that might violate anyone's privacy, I was reading, and it looked like some of the cases just from this past Tuesday were of kids - were of young people who had wandered off, wandered into a neighbor's home - that type thing?

REYES: Yeah. Some had wandered into neighbors' homes. A couple were found very close or in intersections or in parking lots - very dangerous locations for all of them.

KELLY: Yeah. The program that you have created within the police department - it's the Autism/IDD Alzheimer's and Dementia Outreach Unit. Tell me when, tell me how you came up with the idea.

REYES: So 2004 - so we're actually celebrating our 20th anniversary - but the unit began in response to these wandering and elopements, but also in response to incidences of crisis. So we wanted to provide training, outreach, empowerment, follow-up and response in all the layers to support not only caregivers, but to support all of those on the entire spectrum of autism on their journey.

KELLY: I can hear the commitment in your voice. It's quite lovely. And I wonder if you can give me a sense of the scale - what kind of difference it has made. Like, how many interactions do you have in a typical year, say, in Montgomery County?

REYES: So part of our unit's core is to provide a follow-up. And last year, we provided over 600 follow-ups with families, and this year we're on track, probably, for close to 1,000 follow-ups. And that follow-up says to a family, yes, we may have found your child in the middle of an intersection, and we want to support you, right? We want to be there for you.

So the impact is with the caregivers, the individuals. You know, we go into schools and speak to those individuals who are on the autism spectrum. We provide a driving class for those that are driving and have autism. So the impact is creating what I call a culture of action - not just awareness - in Montgomery County that says, we are here for you as you navigate your loved one's - or your - level of independence.

KELLY: That's officer Laurie Reyes from Maryland's Montgomery County Police Department. Thank you so much.

REYES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Katia Riddle
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.