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Training Oklahoma officers how to handle interactions with people who have autism

NORMAN, Okla. - Officers are learning to react differently, particularly when dealing with people who have autism.

More than a dozen agencies from around Oklahoma represented at a class held at the OU Police headquarters. The trainer taught how people on the autism spectrum might act, so that lawmen are better able to handle certain situations.

"Officers are trained that when you ask someone a question, they're supposed to respond and they're supposed to look at you," said Purcell Police Det. Sgt. Scott Stephens. "So, it's a different way of thinking."

That's because they're taught sometimes, people with autism take longer to process questions, don't make eye contact, and deal with stressful situations differently than others might.

"As a crime victim, it was very hard for me to know how to communicate that information to officers at that time," said Anthony Garringer, a graduate student with autism. Garringer was at the class as a guest speaker to talk about his experiences and his perspective.

When Garringer was a teen, he was the victim of a hate crime. He said the inability to effectively communicate with the investigators prevented the case from being prosecuted correctly.

"It was very hard because it was very traumatic," Garringer said.

The trainer explained to those in the class that people who have a disability are three times as likely to be the victim of a serious violent crime.

"Maybe because to some people we appear like soft targets," Garringer said. "If you have trouble communicating, what better victim, eh? If you have trouble identifying your perpetrator, what better victim?"

Garringer hopes to see more of this sort of training in other parts of the state, where it's needed most.

"You know, people think guns and tech, but sometimes the best thing you can invest in is some of these soft skills," Garringer said. "Expand training opportunities for people in our rural communities and rural police officers."