Pa. jail COs, staff undergo autism training

The training is to help COs and staff avoid potential physical confrontations with inmates who struggle from a mental disability


Rich Cholodofsky
Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.

WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Pa. — The ability to recognize symptoms of autism could help corrections officers and staffers avoid potential physical confrontations with inmates who struggle from a disability rather than those who simply misbehave.

That was the message relayed over the last two weeks to more than 200 officers and staffers at Westmoreland County Prison as part of training sessions conducted by the Autism Society of Pittsburgh.

“If someone gets brought in to the jail, [officers] don’t know if he has autism — and they don’t understand how to deal with it — it could turn into a meltdown,” said Carrie Todd during sessions Monday at the jail.

Todd, who is the mother of a 23-year-old with autism, mixed in personal stories as she explained how to identify symptoms and methods to help staff deal with inmates who might be diagnosed with the disability.

County officials launched a series of autism training seminars for employees last year when probation officers, park police and 911 staffers attended sessions at the courthouse. Jail workers were targeted this year for training.

Warden John Walton said there could be unwarranted instances where force might be used against uncooperative inmates because jail staff aren’t able to recognize there is a disability present such as autism.

“It could happen, and I don’t want it to happen. We want our guys to see there might be something else going on,” Walton said. “We want our guys to be trained so that, if someone with special needs comes in to the jail, we can address it.”

Walton said there are no statistics to show how many, if any, inmates with autism have been incarcerated at the county jail.

Todd outlined to staffers ways to communicate with inmates who may be diagnosed with autism and what to look for when trying to discern who might have special needs.

Those skills are required, especially for those who work in law enforcement and corrections, she said.

“People at the high end of the autism spectrum are 10 times more likely to encounter police than higher functioning individuals,” Todd said.

County officials have made autism training for all staffers a priority.

Commissioner Ted Kopas, the father of two children with autism, helped arrange the training sessions.

“It will make them better officers and better people,” Kopas said. “It is my hope that this gives some sense of comfort that people in authority understand these issues.”

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©2019 Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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