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Colorado sheriffs receive autism spectrum disorder safety training

During the 2022 County Sheriffs of Colorado Conference in Eagle, 35 sheriffs and under sheriffs underwent the critical training

During the 2022 County Sheriffs of Colorado Conference in Eagle, sheriffs and under sheriffs underwent critical autism spectrum disorder training with Carbondale nonprofit Ascendigo.
Eagle County Sheriff’s Office/Courtesy photo

During the County Sheriffs of Colorado 2022 Conference in Eagle April 12 and April 14, more than 35 Colorado sheriffs and under sheriffs received critical training for interacting with individuals with autism, particularly when individuals wander from safe environments.

Ascendigo Autism Services, a nonprofit organization based in Carbondale, conducted the training session during the conference, which was entitled, “Leading the Way to a Safer Colorado.”

“The Eagle County Sheriffs Office and the County Sheriffs of Colorado recognize the need for awareness and training for ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder),” said Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek. “This training helped provide knowledge and information assuring that law enforcement professionals are prepared and equipped with information to understand the problems associated with autism and to effectively assist any individual who needs help. Without this training and partnerships, an individual with ASD’s behavior can be misinterpreted.”



Such training is important because individuals with autism comprise at least 2% of society in the United States today. Prevalence data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate a minimum of 1 in 44 children and 1 in 88 adults have autism nationally.

The goal of the training and subsequent training by Ascendigo is to create a circle of safety around autism spectrum disorder individuals in the community. This is done by creating awareness about this exceptionality and its unique safety concerns, all while encouraging communities to allow for growth in the independence of their Autism Spectrum Disorder neighbors.



“Law enforcement is often the last resort before the autistic child or adult is facing adverse conditions and significant danger,” said Shelley Hendrix, a national advocate for the autism community and Ascendigo trainer.

During the training, law enforcement officers were engaged in hands-on exercises designed to help them better understand sensory and communications impairments that individuals with autism spectrum disorder may be experiencing. This is especially important when the individuals are away from their family or caregiver.

Ascendigo also provided tips on how to best interact with autism spectrum disorder individuals whether they are having a great time on an adventure or are experiencing a very difficult day with adverse behaviors. Officers received a quick list of behaviors and types of communication (verbal, behavioral, and non-verbal) for understanding the needs/wants of an autism spectrum disorder individual. They also learned how to improve interactions and redirect with positive behavioral support in the case of a person with autism wanders from a safe environment.

During an interaction with law enforcement, those with autism may be misunderstood and/or can misunderstand leading to mistakes and unintended serious consequences. The mnemonic A-U-T-I-S-M helps guide those responding to crises involving individuals with autism:

  • Approach the person in a quiet, non-threatening manner.
  • Understand touching a person with autism may cause a fight or flight reaction.
  • Talk to the person in a calm, kind voice repeating directions or questions several times. Smile and allow extra time for processing.
  • Instruct the person simply and directly.
  • Seek to evaluate the situation as it unfolds.
  • Maintain a safe distance with the ability to retreat as needed to de-escalate the situation.

Slowing down, giving the autism spectrum disorder person space, using simple sentences with a kind voice and avoiding quick movements were among the main tips provided.

Ascendigo also trains families and caregivers, schools, businesses, hotels and airports to create a safety net around autism spectrum disorder individuals before law enforcement or mountain rescue engagement would be necessary.

“The ASD child or adult’s personal contacts and/or immediate community members are the most likely to be present during the initiation of an elopement or wandering incident — and the goal is to deter and/or monitor the situation closely, depending on the functionality of the individual involved,” Hendrix said.

Ascendigo was chosen by the Department of Justice as one of 16 sites nationally to develop training materials to assist first responders in the case that a person with autism or other developmental disability wanders from a safe environment. According to Hendrix, the autism community has worked for years to pass federal legislation to make this type of training for communities and law enforcement personnel possible. The statistics below emphasize the importance of such training:

  • People with autism are three times more likely to die from injury than a neurotypical peer.
  • For individuals under age 15, it is 40 times more likely.
  • When a person with autism spectrum disorder wanders or elopes, nearly half of all fatalities occur in under one hour. Recovery time is critical.
  • 20% of wandering/elopements occur from the place of residence. Risk is much higher when traveling, visiting relatives, when engaged in outdoor recreation, or in a vehicle.
  • Traffic accidents account for 18% of autism spectrum disorder wandering/elopement fatalities.
  • 40% of wandering/elopements take place when transitioning activities or locations.
  • Drowning is the leading cause of premature death in autism.
  • 71% of all deaths of children with autism spectrum disorder between 2011-17 were accidental drownings. They are 160 times more likely to drown than non-disabled peers and 76% occur in natural bodies of water.

For more information about Ascendigo’s safety training, please contact Mathew McCabe at mmccabe@ascendigo.org.


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