Aspen, Pitkin law enforcement officers get advice on how to spot autism

In the wake of a 6-year-old autistic boy’s death in North Carolina, the head of a valley nonprofit schooled local law enforcement officers this week on how to deal with members of the autistic community they might encounter.

“Water is definitely a big attraction for this population,” said Peter Bell, president and CEO of Acendigo Autism Services in Carbondale. “That’s where most negative outcomes end up happening.”

The boy — Maddox Ritch — took off running while on a walk Sept. 22 at a park with his father and disappeared, according to news accounts. He was found Thursday in a creek about a mile away.

“Unfortunately this happens all too often,” Bell said Thursday before an audience of about 20 Aspen police officers and Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies at the Aspen Police Department’s community room.

An estimated one in 59 children in the United States suffer from a form of autism, Bell said. When his son, now 25, was diagnosed with the condition in 1996, the rate was one in 1,500, he said.

The reason the rate is so much higher now?

“The bottom line is we don’t know,” he said.

Boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism, with one in 40 suffering from the disorder, Bell said. The rate for girls is one in 200, he said. On the whole, people with the disorder, which tends to show up in a child’s first two or three years of life, make up 2 percent of the population, Bell said.

Autism, which can come in myriad forms, is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, he said. The disorder can be accompanied by odd, obsessive behaviors like flapping, spinning or rocking and a sensitivity to light, sounds or colors that might make police officer think a person is high on drugs, Bell said.

“The likelihood is high that they will have … encounters” with members of law enforcement, he said. “It’s not unusual for them to have their own agenda. They go missing frequently.

“They don’t understand the rules.”

That disconnect might even include an autistic person reaching for an officer’s badge or other piece of equipment because they are enamored of it, Bell said.

He urged officers to try to recognize the symptoms of an autistic person and not jump to conclusions about odd behavior. Bell advised them to be patient, use simple sentences and allow time for the person to respond, avoid quick movements and loud sounds and do not touch the person unless necessary.

Acendigo provides services not only to children but to adults, as well, and frequently emphasizes outdoor activities in helping Roaring Fork Valley residents with the disorder thrive, Bell said.