Newswise — BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – A new educational program offered by the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Health Professions, in conjunction with the Interaction Advisory Group, will train law enforcement to recognize and react to situations involving people with special needs.

The Recognition and Evaluation of Autism Contact Training, or REACT, program, offered totally online, is open to all law enforcement serving across the United States.

The online training is custom-designed specifically to be self-paced and learned without instructors present. A committee of UAB professors, working directly with experts from law enforcement and authorities in various areas of special needs, designed the curriculum to meet all standards of academic excellence.

“The responsibility of an academic institution to address societal needs, especially in their own community, is not an option — it is an obligation we take very seriously,” said UAB School of Health Professions’ Dean Harold P. Jones, Ph.D. “This public-private partnership is a perfect example of our commitment to going beyond our obligation, because the REACT impact is such that it will not be felt solely in Birmingham, or only in Alabama. The online design means REACT has the potential to be felt in every community across the United States.”

The REACT program, which had previously been taught only in a face-to-face format, evolved in response to incidents of law enforcement personnel mistaking certain behaviors from persons with autism or developmental disabilities as noncompliance or defiant behavior. The UAB-IAG partnership, recognizing the budget strains facing law enforcement across the nation, created the online format as an affordable solution accessible to everyone in an effort that would meet this growing societal need.

Dustin Chandler, president and co-founder of IAG, is a former police officer and father of a daughter with special needs. He has witnessed both sides of this issue firsthand and sees the REACT program as a potentially lifesaving training solution for those with special needs and for law enforcement officers.

“We understand first responders, parents and individuals with special needs all have the same priority — safety,” Chandler said. “We share that priority, and that is why our training emphasizes safety and provides officers with the information they need to safely interact with individuals with autism or a developmental disability.”

According to the Autism Society, More than 3.5 million Americans are living with an autism spectrum disorder. When you consider a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says one in five adults in the United States has a disability, the need for the REACT training is real and immediate for law enforcement and the public they serve.”

“Individuals with ASD are sometimes misunderstood and misperceived as being difficult or oppositional, particularly when involved in high-stress situations,” said Sarah O’Kelley, Ph.D., director, Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinic at UAB Civitan International Research Center – Sparks Clinic and associate professor, UAB Department of Psychology. “Understanding that individuals with ASD may have different social skills and responses is extremely important for the community, including law enforcement officers.

“Because symptoms of ASD are not always obvious during these encounters, it is important that law enforcement officers appreciate that there are multiple ways to view a person’s behavior and to respond with that in mind. Programs like REACT share a vision with a number of ASD-focused initiatives to increase the understanding of the ways that people are different from one another instead of focusing on what is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ behavior in different situations.”“The question,” said Brian Hale, officer, Hoover Police Department, “is not if we will ever be on a call with an autistic person, but when. The REACT training is a must for all sworn law enforcement. As a former police officer, Dustin has a unique perspective and is able to relay the information in a way that all law enforcement and first responders can relate to and understand.” The REACT training involves real-world scenarios designed to deliver information to law enforcement in a way that is most retainable. Used in conjunction with in-person trainings, this is the best way to ensure the safety of the law enforcement community as well as the community each department serves.

REACT, which has been endorsed by the Autism Society of Alabama, is a unique public-private partnership that launched with face-to-face training. In an initial rollout in 2016, more than 700 law enforcement officers were trained in person throughout Alabama. In 2017, the UAB-IAG partnership will increase the number of law enforcement officers reached exponentially as development of the affordable asynchronous online program means training is now available to all communities across the United States.