NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The Newport News Police Department is launching an "NNPD Project Guardian" to raise officers' awareness of individuals in the community with autism spectrum disorder.

Project Guardian educates all officers about the common characteristics of the disorder, as well as ways to comfort these individuals and de-escalate any situations that may arise.

There are no obvious physical signs of autism, so police often don’t know whether or not individuals they encounter have it. Flashing lights on an emergency vehicle, for example, might cause a person with autism to become frightened and act out. Officers may not understand why some individuals with this disorder will not make eye contact with them, keep their fists clenched, or flap their hands.

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The program helps officers understand that what may seem like a simple interaction with police could be a very traumatic situation for a person with autism and confusing to officers.

 The Newport News Police Department has also created a database to hold information about local citizens with autism. Participating in the database is completely voluntary. Parents and guardians are asked to submit basic information about the individual with autism, a photo of the person, and any special concerns officers should be aware of should they encounter them.

The information will be entered into the city’s dispatching system, and the address will be flagged so officers and first responders are aware of the individual and their needs when they are called to the residence.

“Officers can never be too prepared for any situation no matter the severity,” Program leader, Det. J. R. Howser said. “This is where I ask for your help in making our officers as prepared as possible when interacting with children and young adults with autism.”

Click here to learn more about the project or to register.

Diego Zuniga the Vice President of Tidewater Autism Society made the following statement about the program:

“The Tidewater Autism Society is pleased that the Newport News Police Department initiated an autism training program for their officers to provide a better response to our community. We welcome programs that contribute to the acceptance and safety of the entire disability community, and encourage other police departments in the region to evaluate their own community engagement programs. We are eager to provide knowledge and resources to assist in autism awareness training with first responders, to create a more inclusive, accepted, and safe community."

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