The child kicked and screamed as Debbaudt carried him out of the toy store to help him regain some composure.
Shortly after arriving at the car, Debbaudt was surrounded by mall police and quizzed as if he were a kidnapper.
He explained that his son had autism, a developmental disorder that was then believed to affect one in 2,500 children.
However, the officers did not understand the term or how it related to the 911 call they had received about an apparent abduction.
“I could have been speaking Latin,” Debbaudt said.
Debbaudt, a professional investigator and nationally-recognized law enforcement trainer, led an autism risk and safety management seminar for local police, firefighters and other first responders at Bevill State Community College in Sumiton last week.
It was sponsored by the Community Action Autism Service Team (COAST), the city of Sumiton and the Autism Society of Alabama with help from the city of Adamsville.
Anna McConnell, program manager of the Autism Society of Alabama, said any of the individuals who attended could encounter someone with autism while on the job because the prevalence rate of autism is now one in 110 children and one in 70 boys.
She added that an autistic young man in Walker County recently earned his driver’s license. If he is ever stopped by an officer, he may exhibit some suspicious behaviors as a result of his autism.
“It’s important that people in authority be able to identify those behaviors because it could be mistaken as being under the influence of drugs or something else criminal going on,” McConnell said.
For example, a person with autism might reach for an officer’s badge or weapon.
He or she might refuse to look an officer in the eye, fail to cooperate with orders or attempt to flee into a dangerous environment such as a burning building or busy highway.
Debbaudt said that law enforcement officials and other first responders must recognize that they, not someone with autism, bear the burden of making adjustments in field interactions.
“It takes patience, time and the understanding that there are people who may not recognize your role in society,” he said.
Sgt. Jay Miller said he was eager to share the information he learned at Debbaudt’s seminar with his co-workers at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
Miller, who has a young nephew with autism, is hopeful that one day autism will have its own “10-code,” which is used by officers and dispatchers during radio communications.
He said the only code available now is 10-96, which suggests that the suspect has a mental problem. Miller said a person with autism is usually not a threat to an officer’s safety and should not be treated the same as someone who is having a psychotic episode.
“We need to be aware that autism is out there and know how to handle it properly so that we don’t make a situation worse when we don’t have to,” Miller said.
However, Debbaudt said it is unfair and unrealistic to expect officers and first responders to diagnose autism in the field.
During a training session offered last week for family members and the autistic community, Debbaudt encouraged those in attendance to consider disclosure in the form of decals, specialty license plates or cards so that officers will know when they are dealing with someone who has autism.
“You can’t just look at somebody and know if they have autism. You can’t expect an accommodation unless you tell the person in charge that you need it,” Debbaudt said.