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Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Autism Training at USC’s Department of Public Safety

Grayson Schmidt at USC:
For Monica Caris and Riley McGuire, a leadership capstone in occupational therapy extended beyond academia.

The two master’s students at the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy wanted to make a difference in their local community by promoting education and awareness about a topic that’s personal to both: autism.

After seeing extensive news coverage on negative interactions with law enforcement last year, the pair knew they wanted to share their experiences and knowledge with a local agency, but the Los Angeles Police Department seemed like a tall order. The two ultimately decided to focus their attention much closer to home and start with the USC Department of Public Safety.

The hope was to educate the department, commonly known as DPS, on what signs to look for and how those signs can often be misinterpreted by those who are unfamiliar with autism.

The two were initially worried about how their proposal would be received, but that concern quickly faded as DPS welcomed the idea with open arms.

“We didn’t want to present this in a way that would make them feel defensive or that they had done something wrong because that’s not productive,” Caris said.

“We wanted this to be positive and productive, which is hard when you’re talking about things that people have done wrong and what not to do, but I think at the end of the day, we were very pleased with the feedback we received.”

Earlier this year, the pair gave a series of eight presentations, starting by defining autism and explaining the terminology used in and by the community. That was followed with examples of behaviors that autistic people may exhibit and why, along with examples of positive and negative interactions with law enforcement.

It was so well-received that DPS has decided to implement the duo’s autism training on a yearly basis and offer it to other agencies around the L.A. area as well.

Caris is autistic, and both she and McGuire have close friends with autism. They often wonder how certain behaviors might be perceived by others with little knowledge of autism or interactions with autistic people.

“I’m able to verbally communicate a lot of things, but I know there are a lot of people who have autism, and other special needs as well, who really struggle with that,” Caris said.