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Trauma out of traffic stops: Developmentally disabled learn how to react to police

Posted at 4:18 PM, Mar 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-30 18:39:01-04

ABERDEEN, Md. — You may miss the flashing lights, but you can’t miss the sound of being pulled over.

“I stopped you today. You failed to stop at the stop sign right out there,” a deputy said as he stepped up to the passenger window of the vehicle.

For a young man identified as “John W.” In the front seat, and “Jacob S.” and “Austin R.” in the back, this is an opportunity.

“Some of us are special needs,” John W. announced to the deputy.

This program sponsored by "Pathfinders For Autism" is designed to take the trauma out of a traffic stop.

“Today, we’re focusing on drivers with autism who may experience issues with anxiety, may have some communications challenges and behavioral challenges that may may come across as a difficulty in a traffic stop,” said Rebecca Rienzi, the organization’s executive director.

Those with special needs learn how to react to police

Most of the participants had already watched an hour-long webinar to prepare for the experience, if they hadn’t been through such a stop already.

“Every time dad ran a red light, the cop gave him a ticket, so no worries,” John W. said. "I’m use to it.”

Autistic people learn to react to law enforcement

Law enforcers also are benefitting from this training since traffic stops can be stressful, if not dangerous for them as well.

“The officers are going to have a better understanding of how to deal with someone who may have a developmental disability or someone who just doesn’t know what to do when they get pulled over on the side of the road,” said Sgt. Jerry Eaton of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, “We’ll do this hundreds of times per day, but the driver may have never been stopped before so what is routine for us is a life-changing event for them.”

And life-saving if a misunderstood action results in a potentially deadly reaction that could have been avoided.

“I’m just here to have fun,” John W. explains to the deputy when he returns with a make-believe, warning ticket.

“Are you having fun?” the deputy asked him.

“I brought Ernie with me so no worries,” responded the trainee, as he clutched a stuffed figure of the Sesame Street character in his lap.