How training police to understand people with autism could save lives

Courtney Topic in 2015. Source: AAO

Australians on the autism spectrum are 20 times more likely to come in contact with somebody from law enforcement.

In an Australian first, the NSW Police Force is now being trained on how to recognise and react to people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

One mother involved in the program's development said such awareness could have avoided a fatal incident with her daughter in 2015.

Courtney and Leesa Topic.
Courtney and Leesa Topic.

Courtney Topic was just a few weeks shy of her 23rd birthday when she was shot dead by police outside a Hungry Jack's restaurant in western Sydney.

Courtney, who had autism, was experiencing what is called a "meltdown" and when she lunged at police with a knife, she was killed.

Her very public death, filmed on camera, was the subject of a coronial inquest into why she was shot.

The NSW coroner found in 2018 that she was most likely suffering a psychotic episode due to undiagnosed schizophrenia.


Things 'could have been different'

Five years on, her mother Leesa Topic said Courtney hadn't done anything wrong and said she believes things could have gone differently.

"If the police officer on that day had this training, I think we probably would not be having this conversation and Courtney would be here. We can't change that, but we can go forward," she told SBS News.

To do that, Ms Topic teamed up with advocacy group Spectrum Support and NSW police to develop Australia's first autism training initiative that will be rolled out in the coming weeks.

Leesa Topic talks to SBS News.
Leesa Topic talks to SBS News.
SBS News

The four-day intensive program is aimed at improving interactions between police and people with autism spectrum disorder.

Ms Topic said this is incredibly important.

"So that more vulnerable people on the spectrum, if they are in a situation like Courtney was, that they have a better outcome and that they come across officers that are fully trained," she said.

Telltale signs of ASD

CEO of Spectrum Support Kathrine Peereboom, who is behind the program's development, said it will teach police some of the telltale signs of ASD.

They include repetitive movements, avoiding eye contact and sensitivity to light and sound.

"[It's about] ensuring that all law enforcement understand the idiosyncrasies and the behaviour of somebody on the spectrum. It's so critical that they understand when they responding to a job, who is in front of them, and how to manage that, so everybody goes home safely," she said


Ms Peereboom said she does not blame police for past misunderstandings and simply wants to improve the lives of those living with ASD.

"It's very difficult for somebody who doesn't understand what they're looking at, you can't expect somebody to know something that they've never been exposed to before," she said.

"And that's what we're here to do. We're here to raise awareness and show that it's a human right. Everybody has a right to live their life in the fullest form possible."

According to Spectrum Support, one in 70 Australians are considered on the spectrum and are 20 times more likely to come in contact with somebody from law enforcement.

'Enormous pressure to deal with things quickly'

NSW Police Force Commissioner Mick Fuller said it's a step in the right direction for police.

"We're not doctors, we're not nurses, we're not specialists, we have enormous pressure to deal with things quickly, but this course and the feedback from the police officers who have done this course, they're saying 'why didn't we do this 30 years ago?'"

At the launch on Thursday, Spectrum Support also revealed a new talisman; a colourful symbol that can be worn as a lapel, bracelet, or necklace that symbolises that the individual is on the spectrum.

The Autism Spectrum Disorder talisman.
The Autism Spectrum Disorder talisman.

The group will be giving them out free of charge to anyone with ASD in the country, in the hopes it becomes a household recognisable symbol.

Ms Peereboom, who has three sons with autism, knows how this could help.

"We would love to see this symbol at the point of entry for any business who understands the autistic mind and has services to offer, it's such an isolating life for certain families," she said.

"I know from my own perspective, I have three boys who are severely autistic, we can't go to a cafe, we can't go to a park that isn't completely secured off, so our options are very limited.

"So to have this symbol, as a point of entry where I know they understand my family's needs, that's what we're trying to achieve across Australia."

The training

The initiative will begin training priority officers, those who work in domestic violence, mental health, elder abuse and with youths.

It will combine online modules and face-to-face training. It's then hoped it will be built into the police academy as part of their usual course.

Ms Topic said she hoped it will mean other mothers will never have to go through what she did.

"We need to do this and we want to do this in honour of Courtney and her memory, we can't bring her back, that's what we do want, but that's not going to happen so what we need to do is affect change, positive change and that's what Spectrum Support is doing," she said.

Spectrum Support is in talks to roll the training out nationally by the end of the year.

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