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Interaction with 10-year-old boy with autism prompts new training in the City of South Fulton

The boy, who is non-verbal, ended up with a handcuff on his left hand.

SOUTH FULTON, Ga. — The first of three days of police autism training is underway after an interaction between South Fulton Police and a boy on the spectrum ended with the child partially handcuffed.

Not everything is black and white, and officers learned that firsthand when dealing with a child with autism in the City of South Fulton. That incident is now prompting new training for the entire police force.

“I am the mother of a 10-year-old autistic child," Devon Lee said. Lee's son said Kyle loves being outdoors and traveling - but that doesn't always come across.

“He’s non-verbal still," Lee said. "With my child, and with a lot of children with autism, their disability is not visible.”

City of South Fulton Police Chief Keith Meadows said the officer did not immediately recognize Kyle's disability.

“We received a 911 call that a child was looking into windows of certain homes in the neighborhood," Meadows said.

Lee said her son's actions with police may have across differently than what it was.

“When he was asked questions, he only repeated what the officer asked him, which we consider echolalia," Lee said. "He ended up with a handcuff on his left hand.” 

Lee wants to prevent something like that from happening to another person with autism. She approached Meadows about adding training after the June encounter.

“It was pretty traumatic for us, but I reached out to Chief Meadows and tasked them with coming up with a solution for their officers to be better trained," Lee said. 

Bart Barta is a nationally recognized autism expert who is teaching all 178 City of South Fulton Police employees to understand when someone is on the autism spectrum and how to de-escalate a situation. 

“Individuals with autism have some very unique challenges. One being communication," she said. "Two, being some behaviors occasionally, as well as social understanding and awareness."

Meadows said the training will help several people he and his team are working to protect.

“One out of 44 people in the United States is diagnosed with autism, and when you have a city of 100,000, like we do in the city of South Fulton, you can imagine that that number is extremely high," Meadows said.

Kyle even made a surprise appearance in the class. 

“Hopefully through the training, they’ll learn different techniques and different things to look for," Lee said.

Meadows plans to make this a part of required training for officers going forward.

11Alive reached out to other major metro Atlanta police departments. Clayton, Gwinnett, and Fulton Counties report having similar autism training.

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