Blue Wahoos Stadium will be alive with all sorts of heroes this weekend with the annual Steps For Autism event. "This is a fun, family event with lots of activities for the kids" said Susan Byrum, the President and CEO of Autism Pensacola. Steps For Autism is an event that raises money for Autism Pensacola. This is, in addition to the usual fund raising activities going on at the stadium that morning, Autism Pensacola will be honoring their local Hometown Heroes. "Because we appreciate everyone who puts themselves in harms way on our behalf. Whether it's military, fire fighters, law enforcement officers, search and rescue, everyone that goes out of their way to help others, we're calling them our 'hometown heroes' and we're saluting them on that day.
One of those hometown heroes and the honorary chair of the walk is Sergeant Jimmy Donohoe of the Pensacola Police Department. "We developed a program at the Pensacola Police Department called the 'Take Me Home' program, and we (train other first responders) nationwide to any agency that requests it for free. It helps us identify those non-verbal individuals that we might encounter on the street, and particularly those with autism because about half of them can't speak."
Sgt Donohoe trains law enforcement and other first responders not only on interacting, but also on searching for missing people with autism. He says the overwhelming majority of deaths among missing persons with autism are due to drowning. "And we're trying to get the word out about that to first responders: look in the water first. We actually had a case here a couple of years ago with a (missing seven year old) that visited us from New Orleans that died out on Perdido Key, Owen Black. It's an epidemic nationwide (and) we're trying to get the word out and maybe save a life."
The other important part of the training is teaching officers how do recognize and deal with people with autism while out on the street. "There are a lot of (behaviors) that might indicate that somebody has autism, but there are also those that you can look at and you'd never know that they had autism. You could speak to them and you might not that they have autism." Donohoe says they teach officers to look for things like hand flapping and walking on toes that could indicate they are dealing with someone with autism. He also says someone with autism may not be quick to answer an officer's questions. "When we ask somebody their name on the street, we're expecting an immediate response. If they don't give it to us, we're trained that maybe they might be thinking up a lie (and are going to give you) a false name. We're training (officers now) to pick up on these other indicators, if they're swaying back and forth, rocking, they're doing the hand flapping, (the officer) might want to back up and give them time. It might take them 10 to 20 seconds to respond to your simple question of 'what is your name?' And so those are the types of things we're trying to do so that it doesn't become hands-on." Sgt Donohoe says he has received feedback from around the country saying the training has saved lives…and he’ll be back out on the road in the coming months leading training sessions in Gulf Breeze, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Syracuse, New York.
As for Saturday’s Steps for Autism event, Autism Pensacola’s Susan Byrum says there will be something for everyone to enjoy. "People with autism are very diverse. But we try to come up with ways that we can make the event full of options for our loved ones and the community. For everyone to come together and have fun."
The sixth annual Steps for Autism event honoring Hometown Heroes will be this Saturday from 10 am until Noon at Blue Wahoo Stadium in Pensacola. Groups are invited to register teams to walk around the ballpark and raise money for Autism Pensacola. Learn more at Autism Pensacola dot org.