Dennis Debbaudt was first to address the interactions between law enforcement and people with autism in his 1994 report Avoiding Unfortunate Situations. He has since authored a full-length book, over 30 reports, book chapters and produced innovative and acclaimed training videos for law enforcement and first responders such as paramedics, fire rescue, police, and hospital staff who may respond to an autism emergency.
Dennis has written for the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin and is a cited source for the Department of Homeland Security. He has developed training and consulted the NYPD and Chicago Police Department. Since 1995, he has presented his multi-media training at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Team ADAM, Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police conference and Project Lifesaver International, among many other conferences, and training sessions throughout North America and the United Kingdom.
Dennis has been interviewed by USA Today, New York Times, People Magazine, Chicago Tribune as well as many other print and broadcast media outlets.
Describe your line of work, and how you started.
It’s a job that I never expected to do! My original background is in journalism.
I started by writing for my hometown newspaper in Detroit, free-lanced as a newspaper and television reporter and went on to opening my investigation agency. When my special needs son, twenty-seven, started having unexpected contacts with law enforcement agencies, it seemed like a natural step for me to start raising safety awareness for the autism community.
When this started back over twenty years ago, it looked like I was trying to abduct or abuse my son to those unaware of his diagnosis and many times I had quite a bit of explaining to do when I provided care for my child who was upset in public.
These situations lead me to look for articles about autism and oppositional behaviors and to my surprise, I discovered not much had been written.
Back in the eighties, there was no real information out there detailing the frequency of interactions between law enforcement and individuals with autism, so, that made me decide to step in and begin my research.
My focus was two-fold: finding out whether these interactions occur at a higher rate in the autistic population compared to the general population, hand in hand with developing techniques to aid parents, law enforcement, and first responders when these interactions happen.
I started reporting on my findings in the early 90’s and that lead me to what I do nowadays which is training law enforcement on how to best respond and help when encountering an autistic person in trouble.
So you have pioneered a plan that no one had even thought was necessary before your study?
No one had reported or written about such cases back then.
Over the years, I have written over thirty reports, papers, and book chapters not to mention the hundreds of training classes I have taught.
I have even developed three training videos to guide law enforcement staff different unsung scenarios on ways to deal with autistic behaviors without resorting to responding with violence.
My program has a two-fold purpose -not only does it train law officials how to act when faced with autistic individuals but instructs the autistic community how to avoid getting into unsafe situations when facing the police.
Do you think there is more autism awareness among law enforcement in the US than in other countries, and if so, is more prevalent in urban or rural areas?
There seems to be more autism awareness in North America, specifically in the US and Canada.
However, I do think that many countries like Australia, the UK, and France are quickly catching up.
One of our videos was just translated into French and will be released in France. Over the years, I have lectured in the UK and Canada. My book, published over nine years ago, in 2001, is used by local law enforcement agencies in all regions of Canada and Iceland. I am hopeful more countries will eventually join.
Awareness among its law enforcement officers is directly linked to how active the local autism community is, so there are noticeable differences even within the US.
Some states with more active autism communities have raised better awareness and trained their law enforcement officers how to respond to the various situations while other places have yet to pick up the glove and do the same.
In many cases, the cost of my company’s training expenses is covered by the local autism community, as they understand how important it can be.
I’ve been invited by local autism groups everywhere; big cities as well as rural less densely populated areas like Wyoming or the Yukon.
Over the years, some of the states have provided the funding needed to cover the awareness training costs.
In Blue Sky, Montana, a law enforcement officer who attended one of my lectures and was an autism parent, helped procure state funding to teach the autism awareness courses statewide.
That has happened in other places too, so it has become the case of one thing leading to another in many areas.
My primary goal is to make my training sustainable, meaning that it has to continue working and be successful after I leave, and that is the main reason I have developed our printed material and video.
In your opinion, how should families with autism prepare for travel?
If you think of it, you ‘travel’ every time you leave home, so the question that arises is how prepared can you be for what comes next.
I would say that preparedness is the name of the game!
As a family member or caregiver, you have the most influence on your safety, so you should allocate time and adequately prepare for your travel; never leave things to the last minute.
As a community, we can raise awareness among law enforcement officers, airline, or hotel staff on how to respond to certain situations that may arise while traveling with autistic persons but it is ultimately up to the family members or care providers to come up with the plan they might need during that trip. My motto remains: Plan for the worst and be prepared!
Families with higher cognitive capabilities autistic persons should make teaching safety a priority. In fact, it should be taught and practiced early and often both at home and in school.Parents should insist the plan be incorporated as part of the kid’s IEP if possible! Remember one can be an academic prodigy and still be quite clueless when it comes to negotiating the world and its dangers.
As a parent, remember that skills regular kids learn from experience and absorb naturally, have to be broken down into small lessons for the autistic mind and delivered in a particular way for a longer period.The basic four rules parents need to emphasize are:
- Don’t wander off the beaten path
- Always travel with a group
- Let someone know of your whereabouts at all times
- Don’t make eye contact with anyone in public restrooms.
Any travel advice for those going abroad?
Carry a handout disclosing your kid’s diagnosis of autism and use it before trouble starts- it’s harder to explain matters after things happen.
If your child has a meltdown or repeats stuff that’s written on the walls about bombs, disclosing his/her medical diagnosis in the heat of the moment might seem adequate to you, but the authorities need time to verify the disclosure. Theoretically, anyone can claim disability at short notice, so that’s why it is crucial to let the appropriate personnel know ahead of time of any medical issues!
By letting the authorities know about your issues ahead of time, you are giving them the opportunity to respond adequately. If you are not willing to disclose your issues, then the quality of the response will be limited to the quantity of information the responder has at that given moment. I am aware that some people are uncomfortable with Big Brother watching and knowing too much, but I’m comfortable with that.
My philosophy is that Big Brother should listen, understand, and help individuals if they need help. You have to weigh both sides and yes, you might have to give up some privacy to gain some safety and security.
Some families are squeamish about disclosing information; what is your take on the matter?
You can’t be put on a no-fly list for asking for additional accommodations in the US as it is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act; however, I am painfully aware in other parts of the world there are no laws like that to protect travelers. Frankly, I would love to see UN get involved in protecting travelers’ rights.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I plan on continuing to provide high quality and information to public safety personnel.
My initial goal has stayed the same throughout this journey: providing fair and objective information for all involved people on the spectrum, law enforcement officers, and different security staff produce reproducible material!
Your program calls and requires continuous contact with both law enforcement and autism communities- how is that accomplished?
Our primary focus and communication remain with the autism community. I firmly believe it is the responsibility of the autism community to put the subject of safety and security on the front burner and to stay active and vocal about this important ongoing matter.