Sheriff’s Office, Teaching Hospital Provide Training For Autistic Drivers, Cops

CHICAGO (CBS) — Getting pulled over can be a stressful situation for anyone, but even more so for some drivers with autism.

As a result, the DuPage County Sheriff’s office is working with Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit teaching hospital in Wheaton, to help train new drivers on what to expect.

Four new male drivers, who are high-functioning and have completed a driving program at Marianjoy, will simulate a traffic stop with sheriff’s deputies in one of the facility’s parking lots Wednesday afternoon.

Brandon Lesch, an occupational therapist and certified driving instructor, says with the driver’s parents in the backseat, the deputies will show different levels of understanding about what the driver might be going through.

He says the bright lights and blaring siren of a squad car might prompt some autistic drivers to freeze up and stop speaking — behaviors that police may interpret as signs of aggression or intoxication.

“To be able to control that environment with the least amount of distractions, we think it will be beneficial not only for the participants, but also for the police officers,” Lesch said.

The sheriff’s office is learning from the experience as well, Lesch says, in how to deal with a growing segment of the population.

Because there are no special requirements for someone with autism to get a drivers license, it may not be obvious to law enforcement that a person has a deficit. Therefore, Marianjoy plans to give its new drivers a card to present to police explaining their condition.

If the program goes well, Lesch says he would see Marianjoy, which is now part of Northwestern Medicine, expanding it.

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