How do police agencies handle calls for service involving people with autism?

Posted at 10:31 PM, Nov 18, 2015

Virginia Beach, Va. - A high intensity encounter with police can be stressful for anyone. But for a person with autism, the situation can be more than they can bear.

Now more advocacy groups are looking to increase the amount of training done in our community.

In a matter of seconds, Julia Ward’s 5-year-old twins escaped from her house, so she called police.

“The most terrifying 10 minutes of my life that I ever could imagine,” said Ward.

They were both found safe said Ward.

“I am very fortunate that I had a good outcome because for many of these children, it is not.”

Click here to see replies from police.

Two recent devastating cases involving children with autism have put the issue into the limelight. First, an 8-year-old girl drowned in a pool in Virginia Beach this past September. Then in October, a 3 -year-old from Chesapeake climbed out of a window, according to his family, and ended up in marshy water.

Virginia Beach Police Department Lt. Shannon Wichtendahl has been on many calls for service involving people with autism.

“The challenge of going to a call for service with someone with autism is that there is no physical indicator to give us an idea that someone has that,” said Wichtendahl.

You can’t tell by looking at the person and each case is very different.

“Both of us, the police department and the autism society, recognize with all the incidents all over the world that we need to educate the public even more on our responses and we need to be educated,” said Wichtendahl.

Michelle Hascall with the group Mea’Alofa Autism Support Center works to help children with autism in the community.

Hascall explains how people with autism differ greatly.

“It is a spectrum disorder so it can be a huge range, low functioning, high functioning, just a wide variety people and how autism manifests within those people can be very different.”

Experts say if a person with autism is involved in a crime or the victim of one - certain behaviors could be easily misinterpreted like avoiding eye contact.

“People with autism rock or do stereotypical behaviors that may be depictive or deceitful or avoiding what the police are trying to get out of them. But really that is used to calm them internally which can be easily misinterpreted," says Hascall.

That’s why leaders at Mea’Alofa Autism Support Center would like to see first responders get additional training when it comes to handling people with autism.

They say right now, they are contacting local agencies in an effort to see if more could be done.

We reached out to several local police agencies to learn about their policies when it comes to autism.  The responses were different.

Virginia Beach Police say they’ve gone as far as to make sure every officer has been trained on how to handle calls involving people with autism.

They also have certain people like Lt. Wichtendahl who specialize in autism.

“We as a police department have a responsibility to educate, to train ourselves with all disabilities with all walks of life, and that is what we do here in Virginia Beach,” said Wichtendahl.

Newport News police admit they would handle a search for a missing child with autism differently – knowing that sometimes they’re attracted to water and might not respond when their name is called.

Several departments point out they have undergone Crisis Intervention Team training which covers autism.

Basic training manuals for police academies in Virginia mention autism several times – part of the lesson that falls under the mental illness overview–according to state police.

But advocates stress autism is not a mental illness.

“In treating it just like a mental illness, they are not taking into account the specific behaviors that we often see in individuals with autism. For example, the lack of language, the concern about children wandering to water, those types of things are very specific to autism.”

There is no doubt police are under extreme pressures, dealing with people with all sorts of conditions on a daily basis.

“I think they are doing the best that they’ve been trained to do , but we would just like to offer additional support to make it more effective,” said Hascall.

“Opening up the communication between first responders and the professionals with expertise in the area would be a huge benefit to the community.”

“If we can prevent just one child by raising awareness, just prevent one child from being hurt or something worse, than this is worth it,” said Ward.

An event will be held for kids with autism and their caregivers.

Check for the details below: 

Autism Society, Tidewater Virginia
Virginia Beach Police Department (Crime Prevention Unit)
Virginia Beach Project Lifesaver

Saturday, December 5, 2015
Virginia Beach Law Enforcement Training Center
411 Integrity Way, Virginia Beach, VA

PART 1: (9 am - 2:30 pm*) How to Be Calm & Be Safe During An Emergency ...
Training for Teens/Adults 13 and Older With Autism and their Caregivers

*1 and 1/2 Hour Sessions Between 9 am and 2:30 pm


Session 1-9:00-10:30 a.m.

Session 2-11:00-12:30 p.m.

Session 3-1pm-2:30 p.m.

We will let you know if you are confirmed for your time slot or if you will have to choose another.

PART 2: (3 - 4 pm) Tips for Caregivers

Caregiver Training For Parents of Children with Autism 12 and Under
Limited Childcare Will Be Provided by the Autism Buddies


RSVP on meetup or to Angel Barhill at 757-461-4474 or email