WASHINGTON (AP) — An autistic man walks out of a store without paying for a toy he picked up. He’s followed by a storekeeper demanding he come back inside. The situation quickly escalates, and police are called.
Officers arrive, their patrol car’s lights flashing and sirens blaring, to find the man in the parking lot, yelling and not responding to their commands. They have a choice: confront the man and risk having the situation turn violent or regroup to figure out a different approach.
The scenario is part of a virtual reality simulation for police that’s being developed by Axon — the company known best for developing the Taser — so officers can learn how to interact with people who have autism and de-escalate situations that could quickly turn awry. The developmental disorder that can involve varying degrees of language and social impairments, often including repetitive behaviors. In 2018, the U.S. government estimated about 1 in 40 kids is diagnosed with autism.
This week, the company announced a partnership with Chicago police to train officers by using virtual reality headsets. It will be making the program, developed with the help of mental health and autism experts, available to police departments across the U.S.
For now, they offer two training modules: one for autism and another for dealing with people who have schizophrenia.
“The ability to tell the difference between someone who’s acting in an unusual way that may be due to their autism versus someone who could be a risk to you can be a really fine line,” said David Kearon of the advocacy group Autism Speaks. “When you’re trying to make that judgment very quickly, that’s where we see mistakes made.”
The officers don headsets similar to those used for video games and are immediately immersed in a virtual reality training ground. With a small remote, they can pick the scenario and go through each training scenario in just about five minutes.
In the autism scenario, officers experience it first from the point-of-view of the autistic person, watching as the storekeeper approaches somewhat angrily and pulls the toy robot away, telling the man he needs to pay for it. Police are called and officers arrive and confront him.
They can then play it from the perspective of the police officers, observing tell-tale signs that someone could be autistic.
A crackling call on the radio reports an aggressive male suspect shoplifting and fighting with an employee. The officers pull up to find the man in the parking lot, holding the toy and flailing his arms. They introduce themselves and ask the man what’s happening. He doesn’t respond.
“We need you to calm down!” an officer tells the man, who is hitting himself in the head and speaking incoherently.
The officers can then choose to either talk to their partner or close in and confront the man.