Halifax Regional Police have updated their awareness training for officers working with people with autism spectrum disorder — thanks to the devotion of a father who wants to keep his son’s legacy alive.
Greg Richardson said he wanted to make a difference after his 14-year-old son was involved in a verbal altercation with police. The altercation came just months before he died of a drug overdose last July.
Since the altercation, Richardson has been working with Autism Nova Scotia and Halifax police to update their training to better serve people with autism.
He said the training was officially implemented for all HRP officers last month, just in time for what would have been Adam’s 16th birthday.
“I can’t even say I was happy about it, given the circumstances, but I was a little bit happy that that’s something that’s out there as a legacy for Adam,” Richardson told CBC Radio’s Mainstreet last month.
“Officers can be trained in how to deal with people on the spectrum and that’s important.”
Richardson said Adam was an active, smart and “super funny” kid, who often struggled to stay focused in school and could lash out if agitated.
In 2018, the family spoke with CBC News after Adam was expelled from a private school for children with learning disabilities in Wolfville, N.S., after hitting another student.
At the time, the school said it was “about behaviour and the safety of other students.”
Richardson said he enrolled his son in other schools and programs in the Annapolis Valley and Halifax, but Adam continued to struggle.
He said in the spring of 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Adam’s mental health started to decline and he started self-medicating with drugs. He also started hanging out with older kids who were stealing and possibly dealing drugs, which meant more run-ins with police.
Verbal altercation with HRP officer
Richardson said one incident occurred after Adam was out too late while on house arrest. He said Adam ended up getting into an altercation with an officer who had been tasked with taking him home.
He said the officer had pinned Adam down and smashed his phone, but it got more than physical.
“I’m sure … Adam is no angel in this situation, but then he was put in the back of the car and the officer was sort of verbally taunting him and calling him names and sort of dressing him down, and Adam was quite upset about that and he told me about it after, so I filed a complaint with the police.”
After the complaint was sent, Richardson said HRP Det. James Luther, who mediates these types of situations, set up a meeting to allow him to meet with the officer.
But by the time the meeting happened, Richardson said Adam had died.
“I proceeded with the meeting because I wanted the officer to understand the effect he may have had on Adam, and I didn’t want that to happen to another kid,” he said.
He said despite the circumstances, the conversation went well.
“I think with that particular officer, I think on that day, I moved the needle for him and so that had meaning for me. That was something I was doing that could be a legacy for Adam.”
As a result of the meeting, Richardson said he connected Luther with Autism Nova Scotia in an effort to update HRP’s autism awareness training for officers.
Jill Cormier, the inclusion and family support co-ordinator for Autism Nova Scotia, said she helped review the training and provided feedback.
“The reception was incredible, actually,” Cormier told Mainstreet Monday, adding that the organization worked with Luther and Richardson to streamline the training for all of the force.
“Our hope is that the Halifax Regional Police force have a better knowledge now and moving forward with all the training that they’re going to have, hopefully, be able to provide better strategies than just general strategies for autistic individuals.”
Halifax police didn’t provide an interview, but in a statement, Const. John MacLeod said they are “always looking for opportunities to better understand the unique perspective of members of our community and when this training was brought to our attention we felt that it was a good opportunity to do just that.”
He also confirmed that all HRP officers have been enrolled in the online training course.
“[It] outlines some of the indicators that first responders can recognize as indicative to an individual with autism, as well as some strategies and recommendations that may help first responders adapt or modify their approach to better support the individual with autism in an emergency situation,” he said.
Richardson said the training is an online course that teaches officers how to recognize when someone has autism and how to work with them during difficult situations.
He said people on the spectrum may avoid eye contact or appear agitated or socially awkward. They could also exhibit repetitive physical behaviour, caused by heightened stimulation that may be triggered by flashing lights or sirens.
He said he understands officers may interpret these signs as someone “who’s maybe got something to hide” or the situation needs to be dealt with in a physical way.
“If [officers] can understand that sometimes it’s just someone on the spectrum who’s agitated by the situation, they can work to de-escalate it rather than escalate it,” he said.
“And I don’t want to make a police officer’s job harder. The whole point of this is to try to make it easier and, hopefully, have better outcomes for everyone.”
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