FREDERICK, Md. (WDVM) — 1 in 5 people with a disability will interact with a police officer before the age of 21 according to a study by the Autism Society. In Frederick County, Maryland, their deputies are teaming up with leaders from an autism program to help ensure those encounters go smoothly, especially during a traffic stop.
Getting pulled over can be nerve-racking for many people — especially those with a disability, whether it is because of eye contact or having trouble answering questions. Experts say it can confuse and alarm first responders.
“I experienced a little bit how not to get nervous or anxious when I’d get pulled over by a traffic enforcement officer,” said Simon Mullarkey.
Mullarkey has autism and says he has been pulled over a few times.
“I gave my driver’s license, my registration card and then he gave me a warning and then he laughed me off with a warning,” he said.
Now he’s attending a traffic stop class so he can practice what to do.
“[I learned] not to get too nervous, not to have panic attacks, and if you ever get pulled over by police try to take a deep breath and give the cop your driver’s license — that’s about it — or your learner’s permits now,” he said.
Shelly McLaughlin is the program director for Pathfinders For Autism. She says events like this are all about making sure passengers and drivers with disabilities are safe.
“A lot of individuals with developmental disabilities also have high anxiety. So a traffic stop is something that’s very out of routine. So if they don’t know ahead of time what the steps are they might accidentally do something that they should not be doing. And it would just be because they hadn’t been taught,” said McLaughlin.
When each participant signed up for the event, they were encouraged to watch a one-hour video explaining what to do during a traffic stop. After arriving at the event at Oakdale High School, they received an envelope with tips on what to do and a sheet that stated they have a disability. The envelope can also be used to keep driving documents such as their registration.
As each participant pulled up, they were asked to drive in a lane where an officer would pull them over and ask for their documents, similar to a real traffic stop. People had the chance to practice many times until they were comfortable.
“It makes me learn a little bit so that way I’ll experience a little bit and get to know a little bit more,” said Mullarkey.
It was not just practice for those with disabilities, it was also practice for law enforcement as well.
“It’s also a good partnership for our deputies to be able to identify these things because it’s a traffic stop is a stressful time not only for the people being pulled over but also our deputy. So if we can make everybody safe and a traffic stop, that’s our goal,” said Brian Woodward, lieutenant for Frederick County’s Sheriff’s Office.