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Local nonprofit trains police and first responders who interact with people on the autism spectrum

Courtesy of Ascendigo Autism Services

Local nonprofit Ascendigo Autism Services is developing a new community safety program and training for law enforcement and first responders who interact with people on the autism spectrum.

According to the Carbondale-based organization, knowing how to recognize the signs of autism can help de-escalate situations and even prevent violence.

In some cases, police officers or even mountain-rescue personnel are called to help find an individual with autism who has gone missing — a situation called “elopement” or “wandering.”

“We’re really proud to be able to create some great materials for our local law enforcement, first responders and mountain rescue that really deal with the issue of wandering and elopement and how a first responder might approach someone differently with autism,” said Julie Kaufman, chief development officer at Ascendigo Autism Services.

Courtesy of Ascendigo Autism Services
Ascendigo Autism Services staffers and clients gather for a group photo on World Autism Awareness Day earlier this month to help promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the Roaring Fork Valley. According to Ascendigo, autism affects 1 of every 44 children in the United States and 1 of every 88 adults.

The nonprofit has led two training sessions with local law enforcement so far — one with the Carbondale Police Department late last year and another at the annual County Sheriffs of Colorado Conference in Eagle this month.

“We’re hoping that the model that we build out here at Ascendigo can be replicated in other states and in other rural or mountain settings to create community awareness of what families with autism may experience,” said Shelley McLaughlin, an independent contractor based in Louisiana who is helping Ascendigo develop the new program.

Aspen Public Radio talked with Kaufman and McLaughlin this month, which is Autism Awareness Month.

Listen to the conversation above.

Editor’s note: This story was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. She has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, creative efforts to solve the valley's affordable housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.