In a panic, the mother of a teenage boy called Ottawa police. Her son, who has autism, was worked up and chasing her around their home with a knife.
Moments later when police arrived, no one screamed at the boy to drop the weapon. No one approached with gun drawn. Instead, he was asked calmly about his favourite hockey team. Within minutes, the situation had cooled down enough that an officer could take the knife from the boy before taking him to a hospital.
Police knew how to de-escalate a crisis with this boy last year because his family had submitted information about him – and his love of hockey – to Ottawa’s voluntary autism registry, according to Zoye Coburn, a trainer and outreach worker with the Ottawa Police Service. Launched as a pilot project in 2010 through a partnership between police and the local chapter of Autism Ontario, the program was recently made permanent. It is one of a handful that have sprung up across the country since the first one began in Miramichi, N.B., about two years ago.
Before the registry, there was no formal way to relay information to police about a person’s diagnosis or how to defuse a confrontation. Without knowing the Ottawa boy’s diagnosis and that he found hockey talk calming, police may have responded as they are trained to do in threatening situations involving a weapon – by using force, Ms. Coburn said.
“Our officers are just that, they’re police officers, they’re not medical professionals,” Ms. Coburn said. “They’re not in a position to diagnose people and record it.”