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Ind. program uses decals to alert responders to those with cognitive disabilities

For those with a related diagnosis, they may struggle with emergency sights and sounds or being touched, which can trigger anxiety and lead to outbursts that look like noncompliance


Image/Avon Police Department

Sarah Nelson
The Indianapolis Star

AVON, Ind. — Samantha Hedrick worries more about car crashes than she used to.

In August, her 4-year-old daughter, Lainie Hedrick, was diagnosed with autism and receptive language disorder. Lainie is just learning how to speak.

“My biggest fear has always been if we were to get in an accident and if I was unconscious or unresponsive, she can’t tell (first responders) she is autistic or has major sensory disorders,” Hedrick said.

Hedrick said she’s looked for ways to signal police, firefighters and EMS workers to her daughter’s conditions in case an emergency arises.

Avon police hope they can curb that fear for caregivers like Hedrick through a pilot program launched in mid-November.

The Avon Police Department, along with every law enforcement agency in Hendricks County, is making 4-inch decals available for families of those with cognitive disorders to place on their cars and homes. The goal of the program, called AWARE, is to alert first responders they’re about to encounter someone who may struggle with the sights and sounds of an emergency situation.

Blaring sirens and being touched are a few things that may trigger anxiety and lead to outbursts for people with autism, according to Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism.

Their adverse reaction can be interpreted as noncompliance by first responders, which can lead to devastating and sometimes deadly interactions.

“So when you know that anxiety is a major issue, the worst thing to do is to kind of be abrupt with people,” Pratt said. “A calm voice, a calm demeanor, not approaching quickly are always helpful suggestions.”

Avon Deputy Chief Brian Nugent said that was his driving force in creating the program.

“This should hopefully help first responders recognize it and say to themselves, ‘Hey, maybe I need to deploy some resources from a mental health awareness training ahead of time,” Nugent said. “Or maybe it’s about not shining a bright light in people’s eyes.”

Officers and first responders already train for scenarios on encountering people with mental illness and other disabilities, but AWARE stickers will enhance that training.

“We could train all day about what autism is or what a cognitive delay may be. But we’re only as good as we’re informed when we enter that home or conduct that traffic stop,” Nugent said.

As Nugent looked for solutions, he brought the idea of a sticker to the Central Indiana Police Foundation. He drafted the program’s decal logo with blue, red and green colors to represent police, fire and EMS.

The foundation agreed to fund the pilot.

The program covers disorders beyond autism such as mental health illnesses and other neurological diseases — something Pratt and disability experts who helped create the program lauded.

“Our first thought was, don’t just make it about one disability, make it about all disabilities,” said Hannah Carlock, director of public policy at The Arc of Indiana. She said that’s why she was encouraged to help mold the AWARE program after hearing that was law enforcement’s wish as well.

Seizures, bipolar disorder, down syndrome, dementia, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder are among the eligible disorders listed in the program. A full list of conditions can be found in the medical referral form at the program’s website:

Caregivers can bring a signed medical form to police departments within Hendricks County and receive their sticker.

Lainie’s mother said she’s already started filling out the paperwork.



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