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Cooper City earns latest 'Autism Friendly' designation in Broward

Children get behind-the-scenes access to Cooper City’s police and fire stations during its Autism Awareness event in April.
(Courtesy / Cooper City)
Courtesy / Cooper City
Children get behind-the-scenes access to Cooper City’s police and fire stations during its Autism Awareness event in April.

Cooper City was recently designated as an 'Autism Friendly' community, joining only two other Broward County cities.

The designation comes from experts at the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. They trained city staff for nearly 18 months. The other two cities were Parklandand Weston.

Steve Moyer, a Cooper City parent with an adult autistic son living at home, said the sensitivity training for law enforcement agencies is especially critical.

“When you have an interaction with the police, it can go sideways real fast. A lot of times they're nonverbal. They don't show any outward signs of having a disability. And so it could go bad quickly,” Moyer said.

He told WLRN he had to call the police once after his son left home to wander — a behavior called "eloping." His son wasn’t wearing his tracking device at the time.

In his case, said Moyer, police brought his son home without incident.

READ MORE: Caring for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia; Autism-Friendly Cities

Research has shown that autistic individuals are at an increased likelihood of coming into contact with law enforcement or other justice professionals compared to others, according to the Autism Institute at Drexel University. Its reseachers found that one in five teenagers with autism are stopped and questioned by the police by the time they turn 21 years of age.

Because awareness of autism varies, law enforcement personnel “may not recognize autism and may respond inappropriately or unintentionally escalate the situation,” according to the Autisim Institute.

One South Florida incident that illustrates the challenges of police interaction with autistic individuals happened in 2016 when a North Miami police officer shot a behavioral therapist in the leg in the middle of the street while he was trying to protect a severely autistic patient who had wandered away from a nearby facility.

Police officers mistook a toy truck the patient was playing with and believed it was a gun. The paitent and therapist were sitting on the ground. The therapist, Charles Kinsey, later reached a settlement with the city, according to the Miami Herald. The shooting drew widespread attention when it appeared on social media. The patient was not injured.

In addition to educating law enforcement, Cooper City is establishing low-sensory areas in certain parks and government buildings. These are areas typically located away from crowds and loud noises.

“I just want to say very clearly that being autism friendly, being is the beginning, not the end,” Cooper City commissioner Jeremy Katzman said last week during an interview on WLRN's Florida Roundup. He said the city next wants to train local businesses in understanding autism.

Autism can involve varying degrees of language and social impairments, often including repetitive behaviors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 36 children have autism. The number has grown in recent years.

“I'm very happy to see Cooper City join the other cities that have met this designation,” Moyer said. “The steps that they've taken have made Cooper's City a little bit safer.”

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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