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An ID card for a special needs individual / Photo from the Chattanooga Police Department

One mother's social media plea led to the creation of a new voluntary ID program for special needs individuals in Chattanooga. The hope is to help mitigate communication concerns between law enforcement and those with conditions such as autism or dementia.

On March 11, Rhonda Pascual posted in the Chattanooga Autism Center's Facebook group inquiring if there might be an identification card that would help officers better understand her son.

"Are you aware of any type of card an autistic person can carry, informing police of their condition?" her post reads. "My adult son gets stopped by police quite often due to his Tourette's and Autism, when he takes a walk. He isn't drunk, on drugs or doing anything illegal, he is just autistic and makes noises (vocal tics)."

A Chattanooga Police Department lieutenant came across the post and passed the information on to Master Patrol Officer David Lewis, who works with the Chattanooga Police Department's Office of Community Outreach and Crisis Intervention Team.

Lewis then put the CPD Special Needs Identification Registry in motion in conjunction with the Chattanooga Autism Center.

"[Caregivers and those with disabilities] want to make sure that the first responders aren't concerned or don't perceive the person as a threat," said Dr. Dave Buck, executive director of the Chattanooga Autism Center. "They probably also want more patience and understanding and acceptance."

The police department already has a Take Me Home Program that creates an online emergency contact registry for those with disabilities, but the new program will give another method of easier identification on the spot.

Lewis said that while officers get training on how to approach situations with those with special needs and there are specially trained Crisis Intervention Team officers, the IDs will hopefully provide a way to better communicate an individual's specific condition and allow officers to adjust accordingly.

"I hope for the officer, when they see this ... it's going to give them an understanding from the beginning," Lewis said. "'OK ... this is going to be a different case and it needs to be handled appropriately.' It's not going to be your average citizen, it is someone with special needs."

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An ID card for a special needs individual / Photo from the Chattanooga Police Department

In order to receive a card, one must live in, go to school or work in Chattanooga and receive a referral or medical documentation confirming a diagnosis from a doctor or a disability organization, like the Chattanooga Autism Center, Signal Centers or the Orange Grove Center. Then the CPD Community Outreach Unit can be contacted to begin the process.

The free ID will include information such as name, diagnosis, basic crisis intervention instructions and contact information of a loved one or caregiver in case of emergency. So far, only the family from the Facebook post has received the new specialized ID, but Lewis said he's gotten a few inquiries and expects more as awareness grows.

Ideally, those issued the cards would wear a lanyard or clip the card to their clothing, Lewis said. Buck said that another alternative would be to have the card in a pocket to be presented to an officer.

According to a news release, the department hopes that the IDs will help increase positive outcomes for both officers and local residents.

"While the resolution to any call for service can be difficult to predict, having this information could provide a means to work toward more positive outcomes," the news release says. "What the registry allows is for CPD to have the necessary information to better communicate with the individual in order to attempt to safely resolve any issues that arise. Police will act according to procedure depending on circumstances, including arrest if a criminal act is believed to have occurred."

Buck recalled an incident in which such an ID card may have come in handy in which an autistic woman, who is usually verbal and communicative, got into a car accident. In the moment she got overwhelmed and had difficulty communicating with an officer, who Buck said took her apparent lack of communication as being "disrespectful" or "uncooperative."

"When ... you believe someone's being uncooperative, your strategy with them might change even if you've been trained to de-escalate ... you might just not react the best possible way," Buck said.

"And so if there's anything that can be done to remind the officers, 'Hey, you know there could be different things going on here. Let's give the individual the benefit of the doubt.' I think that's the concern. That's what parents want. That's what autistic adults want — to give them the benefit of the doubt."

For more information, the CPD Community Outreach Unit can be reached at 423-643-5251.

Contact Tierra Hayes at thayes@timesfreepress.com.

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