Training helps law enforcement deal with autism in SWFL

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Kayla McGowan’s biggest fear became a reality just a few weeks ago.

The Cape Coral mother got a call from a neighbor telling her she’d spotted her autistic 7-year-old running away down the street.

“A woman, I’m so blessed, stopped him,” McGowan said.

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Coen, her son, had made it more than a mile down the street before the woman found him at the corner of Santa Barbara Boulevard and Tropicana Parkway. Cape Coral police officers soon arrived and knew exactly what to do, thanks to autism training that’s now required at all law enforcement agencies in Florida.

The Family Initiative, a Cape Coral-based nonprofit, is contracted with multiple Southwest Florida law enforcement agencies to provide the training. It educates officers about what autism is and how it can manifest, according to Anjali Van Drie, the organization’s vice president.

Encounters with police can be more jarring for those on the autism spectrum than it is for others because of police lights and sirens that can trigger the disorder, Van Drie said.

Coen’s encounter with police could have been worse. McGowan is thankful it wasn’t.

“I wouldn’t want to experience that again, but I’m grateful that’s how I know they would treat him,” McGowan said.

For more information, visit the Southwest Florida Autism Playgroup website.

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