Walking into a room full of people can be a high-stress scenario for someone with autism.
But that's exactly what 12-year-old Hunter did. Hunter is non-verbal, on the severe side of the autism spectrum. He's visiting to teach local law enforcement how to communicate with others like him.
As he enters the classroom full of uniformed police he lets out a wail, announcing his presence.
"He's got very limited speech. His mom has volunteered that if he does have a meltdown, she’s not going to help,” said Stephanie Cooper, who runs the Autism Law Enforcement Response Training or ALERT.
Cooper travels around the country providing these training classes to reduce the stigma between law enforcement and people living with autism.
But for her, it's much more than just a job.
"I was an officer in New Orleans; I now live in Orlando, Fla. My son goes to a special charter school for children with autism," said Cooper.
She said people with autism are more likely to be abused or kidnapped, and they tend to wander off. When they have to engage with law enforcement, they can sometimes shut down.
Cooper's solution: autism sensory kits. Every officer she trains gets one for free. Inside are non-verbal communication cards, a chew stick, a therapy brush, and a fidget cube.
"It just helps them when it comes to interviewing an individual with autism," said Cooper.
ALERT program trainers say that the skills they teach also apply to individuals affected by traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, cognitive delay, down syndrome, as well as persons with Alzheimer's and dementia.
Participants say the training was a great way to learn.
"We’ve seen people today who drive and have autism and people who are non-verbal, so you're dealing with a large spectrum, and it will be helpful to know how to interact," said Carman Rotella a New York City police officer.
Officers and people like Hunter are stepping out of their comfort zones to learn to communicate effectively for when they need it the most.
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