Drew Gutenson loves to talk about his collection of prescription eyeglasses and his fondness for playgrounds — slides, swings, trampolines and zip lines.
Gutenson, who describes himself as a high-functioning adult with autism, knows that some skills are particularly challenging for him, such as sensing when people don’t want to talk to him. He also understands that his fondness for playgrounds can be a source of concern for those who don’t know him.
“I have a beard,” he said. “If they see an older adult with a beard on a playground, most people think it’s not good at all.”
Gutenson, 25, of Lovettsville spoke to a group of 14 sheriff’s deputies and other criminal justice professionals in Leesburg on Tuesday at the advocacy group the Arc of Loudoun on Paxton Campus, a nonprofit organization that provides educational programs and other services for people with disabilities.
His informal presentation was part of a training session organized by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office for its Crisis Intervention Team. The sheriff’s office started its crisis intervention program four years ago to train deputies in de-escalating situations involving people who are in crisis or who have a mental illness.
Last year, an upturn in the number of adults with autism entering the criminal justice system spurred the sheriff’s office to add a component on autism and other developmental disabilities to the 40-hour program, said Sgt. Linda Cerniglia, who supervises crisis intervention training.
“Our jails are actually seeing more adults being arrested [who], because of their autism . . . don’t really know what” they’re doing wrong, Cerniglia said.
The sheriff’s office entered into a partnership with Paxton last year. About once a month, a group of law enforcement officers visits the campus to learn about autism and other developmental disabilities, observe students at the Aurora School, and meet some of the adults with autism who are Paxton employees.
The training is designed to help law enforcement officers recognize when someone has autism and to adjust their response accordingly, Cerniglia said.
Sometimes, law enforcement officers might be summoned because behaviors are misinterpreted, such as when an adult with autism is physically struggling with a caretaker in public, Cerniglia said. Or, like Gutenson, they may simply like to spend time in places where their being an adult among children raises suspicions.
“It’s just making law enforcement aware that his favorite place is the playground,” she said. “He’s not a threat to anybody, but people who don’t understand may interpret him as being a threat.”
Melissa Heifetz, director of Paxton’s advocacy center, told the class that some adults with autism might not know how to respond when they encounter a law enforcement officer. They might be suspicious of authority figures, feel vulnerable or have trouble remembering. Some don’t speak at all and communicate primarily through sign language or pictures.
Kendra McDonald, a Paxton behavior analyst, told the class that people with autism often have difficulty responding to questions, such as “Why did this happen?”
“They’ll rarely say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” McDonald said. “That can be a hard concept.” Law enforcement officers might interpret their hesitancy in answering questions as a sign of guilt, she said. McDonald and other staff members then suggested strategies for de-escalating incidents involving people with autism.
The partnership between Paxton Campus and the sheriff’s office has advanced beyond training for law enforcement officers, Heifetz said.
“We also do training several times a year for parents on proactive ways that they can keep their loved ones safe,” she said. Training is also provided to 911 dispatchers and will soon be offered to lawyers, she said.
“Unfortunately, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system,” Heifetz said. A grant from the Arc of the United States will help improve coordination among various agencies when someone with a disability is arrested, she said.
The grant led to the formation last month of Loudoun’s first multidisciplinary Disability Response Team, which includes representatives of the sheriff’s office, juvenile detention center, adult and juvenile probation, public defender’s office, family advocates, and the Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services, Heifetz said.
“It will really be the point of contact for people in the county when there’s someone with a disability involved in the criminal justice system,” Heifetz said.