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Portsmouth police partnership provides new training for encounters with autism

by: Kathryn Burcham Updated:

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - A nonprofit in New Hampshire is hoping to keep people with autism safe when police officers are called to emergency situations.

Barbara Frankel's son isn't defined by his diagnosis, but at 26, autism has certainly altered the course of his life.

“When he was 16 months old, they asked me the question, what do you think? And I said, ‘I think autism,’” Frankel said.

Through intensive therapy, Elliott is able to spend time in his community, but that journey has had a few bumps along the way.

“As a family, there’s a lot of challenges to making it work,” Frankel explained. “He would leave the house without permission and enter someone else's house.”

Portsmouth police officers have responded to calls about Elliott a number of times, always with compassion and understanding.

But Frankel says in July, when she saw the video of a North Miami police officer shooting the caretaker of an autistic adult, fear pierced her heart.

“I worry how easily there could be a misunderstanding that could result in an incident,” she said.

Frankel founded The Greengard Center, a nonprofit that helps autistic adults. Now, she's using it to build a bridge to the men and women in blue.

“It was almost as if it was meant to be,” Portsmouth Police Sgt. Eric Kinsman said.

Sgt. Kinsman says his officers needed the training to recognize the symptoms of those on the autism spectrum.

Through the new partnership with Greengard, officers have autism reference sheets in every cruiser, with information they need to properly respond.

“This is an opportunity for us to have such a positive impact,” Sgt. Kinsman said.

And no one feels that more than Barbara and Elliott.

“To feel like we are a family that fits in our community, even though we are pretty different,” Frankel said.

Police say they don't know how many residents in the city are on the spectrum

The city is also asking residents to register family members with autism with the department. It will give officers real time information from dispatch during emergency calls.

“Some sensory techniques that we may need to know about, some calming techniques, vital emergency contact information,” explained Sgt. Kinsman.

You can find out more about the Greengard Center here.