Virtual reality studied to improve police encounters for those with autism

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- No one knows how often people on the autism spectrum have encounters with police or how often there's a misunderstanding, or even violence.

It happened in Philadelphia in May, when 29-year-old Joel Johnson, a non-verbal man with special needs, was shot by a police officer who mistook Johnson's panhandling for a carjacking.

The officer thought the quarter Johnson was holding was a weapon.

A study at Children's Hospital's Center for Autism Research is looking for safer, effective interactions.

Kids or adults with autism may not know how to respond to a police officer. Experts say they may look away or not know how to follow directions, which could escalate a situation.

That's where this program aims to help and it seems to be having a positive effect on both sides.

Premere Anderson, 20, is practicing using virtual reality to run through different scenarios encountering police.

It's part of a study at the Center, and even includes real-life interactions with Philadelphia officers.

"I need to ask you a few questions," says one officer.

For people on the autism spectrum, expert Joe McCleery says contact with police can be extremely stressful.

"They're especially sensitive to unpredictability, so they don't know what is going to happen next either socially or the noise makes them really anxious," he said. "They may run away, cover their ears, nervous bouncing around, look suspicious like they did something wrong."

All of this can escalate a situation, but giving people tools and practice can help.

The study is looking at the best way to teach these tools.

Mike O'Donnell, captain of Philadelphia's 17th police district, says participating in the study is a win-win: Officers get training through the department, but this extra exercise is invaluable.

"It helps the officer identify it and better understand what those on the spectrum are going through," says Capt. O'Donnell.

"When I first started two years ago as a school beat, I didn't know how when I asked a kid, like why you're late for school? When they used to tell me, they would look down and I didn't know what was going on with them, but now I recognize it even better now," says Officer Kimyatta Davies.

For Premere, he likes the practice, and it gives his brother more piece of mind.

"Through this study, he gets skills and tip and strategies, to put his best foot forward, do the best her can do," says Sean Plaskett, Premere's brother and guardian.

They're still enrolling for this study, looking for kids and adults ages 12 to 60 with autism and who are verbally able to participate.

CLICK HERE for more information in the study, or email Ashley Zitter at zittera@email.chop.edu .
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