The new decal adopted by Miami-Dade County to inform first responders that a person in a home or vehicle is on the autism spectrum. (Photo/Provided by Miami-Dade County)
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A new program aims to save lives by alerting police that an occupant within a home or a vehicle has autism, a measure adopted at the urging of Commissioner Raquel Regalado.

The University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism estimates as many as 50,000 individuals on the autism spectrum live in the county. The decal program evolved out of an agreement between the county and the center to provide training for police and firefighters to better understand and communicate with autistic individuals.

Police departments have increased training on how to interact with individuals who are on the spectrum after a series of tragedies. 

In September 2020, a Salt Lake City police officer shot and wounded an unarmed 11-year-old autistic boy having a breakdown. Closer to home, in July 2016, a North Miami police officer shot a 26-year-old autistic man holding a toy truck, believing it to be a weapon.

The County Commission approved the program at its Wednesday meeting. The decals are free of charge to anyone in the community by voluntarily providing information to the police department through a website.

Regalado, whose district includes Key Biscayne, has a son and daughter who are autistic. The program should be up and running in April, which is Autism Awareness Month, she said.

The decal uses a new rainbow infinity symbol with the words  “Special Needs” and “Occupant with Autism” at the bottom. In the middle it reads, “May not respond to verbal commands.”

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Individuals on the autism spectrum may not be verbal, Regalado said, or not be able to stand still. It is not unusual for those with autism to flap their hands, rock or make other movements — which can be misinterpeted by police.

“Moving your hands around, is not is not necessarily a sign of violence,” Regalado said. “It’s their way of dealing with nervousness or anxiety. It doesn’t mean this person is going to strike you or they’re lunging for you.”

North Miami Police Department already has an autism decal program for its residents.

Regalado said new training informs first responders how residents on the spectrum do not react in ways that are expected and provides ways to de-escalate the situation.

“Telling them to calm down has the inverse effect,” she said. “The lack of eye contact, for a lot of police officers,  is because they are on drugs, or because they are lying, or because they have done something.”

After Regalado attended Wednesday’s night State of Village speech given by Mayor Joe Rasco, she huddled with parents from It Takes A Village KB, the Key Biscayne group that aims to bring services to the differently abled on the island. 

Barbara Diaz with It Takes A Village KB said she wasn’t aware of the decal until speaking with Regalado. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s a very good idea.”

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John Pacenti

JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.