The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘Oregon

San Diego police officer protects and serves

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Police officer Brian Herritt and his autistic son

In what was a timely follow-up to my analysis of the Toronto Sun story published earlier this week, Rebecca Woolington of The Oregonian brings us a story profiling a San Diego police officer hosting a four-hour training session for fellow police officers in Oregon’s Washington County. The training is far from standard, as Brian Herritt will be instructing police officers on how to respond to autistic children. The father of an autistic child himself, Herritt’s inspiration began when his son eloped at the age of three and he found himself relying on police to find him. While his son was discovered safely, Herritt noticed police may be unprepared to handle autistic children, his experience as a parent and law enforcement official created a dedication to teaching cops how to recognize signs of autism and deescalate situations. Conversely, he also wants to teach parents the mentality of police officers.

The Autism Society of Oregon is funding the training session, and one likely subject will be the potential of confusing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (people talking to themselves or fixating on objects) with socially awkward behaviors that exhibit signs of drug and alcohol use. Herritt also explains how to best take autistic people into custody, what crimes they are most likely to commit or fall victim to, and to avoid assuming someone isn’t cooperating because they’re not responding to questions or orders (as explained many times on this site, some autistic people don’t communicate verbally).

Autistic people must follow the laws like everyone else, but after the ordeal I dissected in Toronto, Herritt’s mission is the perfect antidote to solve issues surrounding lack of awareness of autism in law enforcement. One training session won’t make police experts, but because Herritt is a fellow officer with an autistic child, his ability to communicate to both parents and cops is more effective. He understands the wishes of parents to accommodate autism spectrum disorder when approached and the rapid responses officers must sometimes make on or off-duty. As I mentioned in the last story, there will be increasing encounters between autistic people and police officers as the autism population grows and ages, which likely means Herritt won’t be the only cop to offer this training in the future.

There’s also a possibility of a follow-up story in The Oregonian as the training session doesn’t take place until next Wednesday, creating a set-up to report the response of attendants. Many are representatives of the sheriff’s office and local police departments in Oregon, so finding ties for the reading audience would not require much effort. Continuing to cover this story could also reveal Herritt’s future plans for these training sessions; the fact he is traveling to Oregon from the San Diego area brings forth the desire to promote a subset of knowledge to a group who most likely will need them on future assignments. Outside the region, other news editors and reporters may find citizens similar to Herritt who share his goal.

Woolington spends the first half of the story explaining Herritt’s background and his drive to educate other officers before switching to local sources for their reaction regarding his Oregon visit. Woolington indirectly highlights why autism training will matter to any kind of safety official in the long-term: parents already in the business are getting a first-hand experience with the disability.

Autism service dog leads own experiment

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Wendy Givens brings Madison to school. Photo by Michal Thompson.

FOX affiliate KPTV in Portland recently published a story about an autism service dog who found himself at the center of an experiment. Jordan Givens, a 10-year-old autistic fourth-grader, has started bringing his service dog, a German shepherd named Madison, to Patterson Elementary School in Hillsboro. Although the Hillsboro School District originally disallowed Madison to sit with Jordan in class because they said Jordan was adequately achieving his goals in his individual education plan, they are now allowing Madison in Jordan’s classes to find out if the German shepherd helps Jordan function more effectively in school.

Wendy Givens, Jordan’s mother, already believes Madison is a metaphorical portal. She says Madison is trained in behavior disruption, which means he helps Jordan’s bouts with aggressions and calms his senses. The school’s principal says Jordan’s teacher is considering the dog’s effect on other students, adding that his classmates appear prepared to adapt Madison into their routine. The experiment also has the support of the U.S. Attorney in Oregon.

The story points out the continuing efforts to spread autism awareness throughout all communities. Normally, dogs aren’t allowed on school grounds unless there are mitigating circumstances. Usually, such circumstances involve physical disabilities, which autism is not. Recall that the disorder can be difficult to detect with the naked eye, so even if Jordan’s school district is aware of his condition, there’s a possibility the school district may not see what’s wrong with him, and that may have caused the small ordeal about allowing Madison in school.

Madison has served as the Givens’ service dog for three years, although we aren’t told much about the shepherd’s impact with Jordan. The story’s focus was why the dog wasn’t allowed in school, so it’s not surprising that little information about the bond between Madison and Jordan is divulged. TV news stories have short windows for stories, so unless they’re airing a longer feature, broadcast reporters can’t spend much time on topics related to but not about the primary theme.

Depending on who comes across this story, Madison may not be just the center of a local experiment, but a regional or perhaps national one. Approaching autistic students still leaves school officials and parents scratching their heads because of low data for accommodations outside of special education classes. The development between Madison, Jordan and his classmates could provide some insight on the success of additional resources.

No (therapy) dogs allowed?

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Photo by Olivia Bucks, The Oregonian

There are two issues to the story I’m about to present. Autism is clearly one of them, but the other is something we’ll likely hear more about as more parents consider getting a therapy dog to assist their autistic children: are they truly service animals or well-trained pets?

The most recent episode is covered by The Oregonian. An autistic boy with severe complications, which includes attempting to hit other classmates and teachers at the elementary school he attends, gets assistance from a therapy dog his parents got for him. Madison, a two-year-old German Shepherd, mitigates the boy’s symptoms by stopping him when he attempts to run away (a common side effect caused by a lack of environmental awareness), and lying on him when he suffers an emotional meltdown (also common because they often lack knowledge on less violent alternatives to express emotional distress). However, the Hillsboro School District won’t allow Madison to go to school with his owner, saying the boy is doing fine on his own.

The refusal to allow Madison in school has led to the U.S. Justice Department investigating a complaint from Disability Rights Oregon that could affect other families seeking therapy animals for assistance. The school district argues that it’s a matter of process, saying there is no need for a service animal if there’s a student doing well in school. Therapy dogs aren’t covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but are growing in popularity. Still, fully-trained dogs helping autistic students in public schools are rare. The Autism Society of Oregon says that school districts will fall back on basic policies because therapy dogs are new territory for them.

From a social perspective, it’s a two-pronged pitchfork. It’s not unusual for neurotypicals to go with the simplicity route. They don’t hold a vendetta against the disabled, but they sometimes lack an understanding of that community because they don’t have to deal with them on a daily basis. The school district was also concerned about allergies and students who fear dogs, but the Hillsboro superintendent dismissed them as primary issues. The story’s lead would contradict what the school district is suggesting, and if that’s indeed true, the school district’s statement also raises questions about what constitutes “doing well” in school. Is he doing well academically, or doing well because he’s removed from a mainstream setting where other students would be at risk from the boy’s behaviors. One solution to resolve this dispute is adopting what the Beaverton School District did and have the dog go to school with the boy on a trial basis, making observations on how the boy behaves with the dog versus without him.

Human rights aren’t the only issue here. The story also reflects how people define service animals. Parents who use therapy dogs for children with autism would most likely claim that therapy dogs are service animals, along with the trainers who send therapy dogs to families once training is completed. It gets murky with everyone else, and opinions are reached on mostly personal levels versus scientific ones. The place where Madison was trained, 4 Paws for Ability, says the German Shepherd received 500 hours of training before he was assigned to his family in Oregon.

The article presents some new ingredients that will likely be used as the autism debate evolves. The story does more than cite arguments from both sides of the story. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have learned that Oregon has dealt with this issue before in the Portland area. Don’t be surprised if you see a similar story appear sometime in your local newspaper or TV station; it’s a fresh look that avoids rehashing what most reporters have already told us about autism. Even I haven’t considered the debate about service animals and autism because I never required the use of a therapy dog, but this story shows us that civil rights in the autism community aren’t limited to humans.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 13, 2010 at 11:16 am