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Project First Responder in Louisa

Posted on Saturday, March 23, 2019 at 5:00 am

Landon Withrow, 12, and Maj. Donnie Lowe, of Louisa County Sheriff’s Office, are working together to help train Louisa’s first responder community to better work with people who have autism and other developmental and neurological disabilities.

For people with autism, Alzheimer’s Disease, or intellectual and developmental disabilities, contact with law enforcement and fire-rescue personnel can be a problem. The mere presence of someone in uniform can trigger anxiety, panic and even combative behavior. These incidents often lead to crisis, and in some cases, tragedy.

Det. Chuck Love and Chief Deputy Maj. Donnie Lowe, of the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office, have spent the past several months establishing the Project First Responder initiative. The program gives parents and caregivers a way to provide  valuable information to responding officers and emergency services staff through the sheriff’s office website.

Having this kind of information available prior to arriving on the scene of an emergency not only helps the officer, but also the disabled individual. Another large component of the program involves training law enforcement and emergency services personnel to recognize and know how to manage a subject who has developmental or neurological disabilities.

The idea for Project First Responder came to Love when he read a letter written to him by Landon Withrow, a 12-year-old student involved in the sheriff’s office’s Law Enforcement Adventure Program for youth.

Love said that he asked everyone to write a paragraph about why they thought they should be accepted into the academy.

“I received a two-page letter from a young man, Landon Withrow, who states that he thinks he should be accepted into the academy because he heard about people being shot inadvertently, and that he discovered they were autistic,”  Love said. “He said that is he is autistic, and that he was very afraid of the police, and he felt like being unable to respond to commands was putting him in danger.”

Withrow gets nervous in the presence of law enforcement, and said he knows that other autistic children do as well. Often when someone with autism gets nervous, they can respond in a way that might seem unusual, or be misinterpreted as noncompliance or disobedience to someone unaccustomed to dealing with people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders.

People with autism are seven times more likely to come into contact with law enforcement, according to a study performed at Buffalo State College. When you factor in the impaired communication skills and cognitive function of someone who suffers from autism, intellectual and development disabilities or Alzheimer’s, you have a great potential for problems.

According to the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office’s website, “law enforcement officers are trained to respond to a crisis situation with a certain protocol, but this protocol may not always be the best way to interact with [AAIDD].”

“A lot of times, an officer shows up and begins to take control over a scene, and he starts giving direction,” Lowe said. “If the subject doesn’t comply with his directions, he initially believes that person is not cooperating and he begins to take steps to change that.

(Article by Andrew Hollins)

This is a partial article. Read the full story in The Central Virginian’s March 21, 2019 issue.

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