Around five years ago, Officer Rob Zink of Minnesota’s St. Paul Police Department responded to an incident in which a 300-pound male had attacked his mother, leaving her with a bloody nose. While the public perception of the US police force causes one to imagine officers storming the property and forcefully apprehending the perpetrator, Zink didn’t feel such an approach was necessary.
Zink was told that the boy was autistic so rather than put the boy in handcuffs, he decided to take the boy for a walk to let him calm down. Zink himself has two sons on the autistic spectrum and knew how distressing an encounter involving police, sirens and confrontation could be to someone with autism.
Eight blocks later, the boy was finally calm enough to explain to Zink that what had happened was an accident caused when he “geeked out”. It was this chance encounter which inspired Zink to use his understanding of learning difficulties to teach others how to approach those with the condition.
Zink now uses his knowledge to increase awareness and ensure that others use compassion rather than contempt. “I understand them,” Zink said. “A regular cop is not going to understand it when someone on the spectrum doesn’t do what they are told. Lights, sirens, yelling — those things can make them go into panic mode.”
According to The Autism Site, Zink began the Cop Autism Response Education (CARE) Project where, in addition to speaking to families with autistic children, Zink speaks to officers to teach them how to handle disputes involving those on the autistic spectrum.
“We have been seeing more calls relating to kids on the spectrum and Rob has kind of become our point person,” Cmdr. John Bandemer explained. “We are grateful that Rob has an interest in this from his point of view as a father. That and his work with families can kind of close the circle for understanding.”
While sensitivity training is common amongst police forces, this level of personal expertise is extremely valuable to those on the front line. Furthermore, it’s imperatively important that those with autism know that the police are public servants – there to help as well as enforce.