San Francisco police training video aims to bolster autism understanding

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- A San Francisco Police Department's training video that shows officers how they can recognize people with autism and respond appropriately to de-escalate potentially explosive situations is being hailed by a national group meeting this week in the city.

Members of the Autism, Aspergers Syndrome Coalition for Education Networking and Development, also known as AASCEND, are meeting at San Francisco State University where they are expected to recognize SFPD for its groundbreaking training video. The department and autism activists worked for a year to create the video guide, which many hope will save lives during confrontations.

The department hopes to start next month on training current officers on how to avoid or reduce conflicts with people with autism. New recruits will also undergo the training once they join the force, officials say.

"In making this video, we were hoping to give our officers an extra tool in how to recognize some of the traits of individuals of individuals who are on the autism spectrum," said police Commander Robert Moser.

Camilla Bixler, an autism activist whose son has the condition, says the video will help officers better deal with those who have it.

"A lot of autistic traits are pretty easily misunderstood," she said. "We felt there was a need for some kind of collaboration (and) need to train officers, said Bixler, co-chairperson of  AASCEND.

Group members and police said they hope the enhanced police training will stem unnecessary arrests and prevent violent confrontations. The training video features experts, law enforcement officers and dramatic portrayals of interactions between beat officers and autistic patients.

"Perhaps the most unique aspect of this video is people on the spectrum talking about themselves," Bixler said.

People with autism are featured prominently throughout the video.  

One teen named Joshua says: "It's hard for me to make eye contact. That doesn't mean I'm being dishonest or trying to lie."

Another autistic person says in the training video: "I am very sensitive to touch. It can be very painful. So I might pull away. I'm not fighting or resisting."

"I like shiny objects. I like the reflection of people's glasses, but I'm not trying to invade their safety zone," says one video testimonial.

One young man talks about eye contact.

"People often point out to me that I'm not making eye contact. That's just how I normally conduct myself."

And one testimonial on the training video talks about laughing.

"Sometimes people on the spectrum laugh at unusual times. They just do it. I don't know why. They're not mocking anyone."

Mosher said the portrayals of autistic people should help officers understand how to better respond to those who have the condition.

"I believe that that's one of the most powerful pieces of the video is seeing traits and hearing members from the autism community speak about the traits," he said.

By KTVU reporter Tom Vacar.