Pa. state police begin using informational cards to assist people with autism with LE interactions By:

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By Maia NehmeLNP, Lancaster, Pa.

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HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania State Police have begun distributing informational cards to assist autistic people when interacting with law enforcement.

The cards, which include a person’s name, contact information and emergency contacts, state that the cardholder has autism and urge officers to be patient and direct in their interactions.

Gov. Josh Shapiro and state police Commissioner Col. Christopher Paris spearheaded the effort for the new cards after meeting with Chester County-based autism advocate Alex Mann, who has autism, in early May.

“(Mann) felt that we needed to have a way for people with individuals with autism to identify themselves to police,” state police spokesperson Myles Snyder said. “Some of their actions and behavior that might seem suspicious would be indicative of their autism and not any attempt to be noncompliant.”

Mann showed Shapiro and Paris an informational card his former high school teacher had helped him make in case he was stopped by law enforcement while driving, sparking their idea to implement the cards at the state level.

The state police’s Office of Community Engagement designed the card. People can either print out the cards or save them to their phones.

Since December 2019 , Mann has visited 500 law enforcement agencies across the country, including the Pennsylvania Capitol Police and the Pennsylvania State Police Academy , to educate officers on how to interact with people with autism.

“My mission is to break that stigma (and) tell these officers basically to just take a step back and realize, ‘Hey, there may be something else going on here,’” Mann said. “They could have autism, they could have Down syndrome, they could have something else.”

Mann has never had a negative experience with law enforcement officers, but he said he’s spoken with other people with autism who had unpleasant interactions.

During his visits to law enforcement agencies, he advises officers to treat people with autism as if they were their friends.

“See if you can find something familiar to the individual, like maybe a stuffed animal or an iPad,” he said. “If they want to play a game with you, let them. Just be there to basically hang out with them.”

The Arc Lancaster Lebanon is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting people with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities. Maureen Westcott , executive director of The Arc, was excited to learn about the new informational cards.

Westcott said The Arc has invited law enforcement officers in the past to hear directly from people with disabilities.

“The more positive connections between law enforcement and those with disabilities and their advocates, the more we will have beneficial outcomes,” she said in an email.

Snyder said state police are not currently working on other projects to facilitate communication between law enforcement and people with autism, but that they’re always open to new ideas.

Since reaching his goal of visiting 500 law enforcement agencies, Mann has shifted his focus to educating and training officers.

Mann recalled a Chester County police officer who called him after pulling over someone with autism. They ended up speaking on the phone for 45 minutes and Mann was able to guide the officer through the encounter.

Mann emphasized that officers should not view people with autism as a monolith.

“Not everyone with autism is going to be 100% the same,” Mann said. “Everyone on the spectrum is 100% unique.”

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