Lt. Brian Corletto, of the Whittier (CA) Police Department, is leading his department’s efforts to educate the community about individuals on the autism spectrum as Autism Acceptance Month is observed across the nation during April. The veteran officer of 16 years understands the need to create understanding and acceptance not just as a first responder but also as a parent.
Brian Corletto and wife Norma, who have a son diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), designed an autism-themed police department patch that is now being sold in their community. The proceeds from the patch, and other small autism-awareness items, will go to a local autism awareness and research center in Whittier.
“This is the first year we are doing the patch. We started an autism awareness campaign at the PD last April. That is all thanks to our new Chief Aviv Bar. He’s very involved with community engagement,” says Brian. “Being a parent of a child on the spectrum I thought it would be cool if the department could do something. We started it last year, but we didn’t have time to design the patch. We had wristbands and things like that.”
The multi-colored Whittier Police Department autism patch depicts pieces of a puzzle. Brian recalls an earlier time when he did not understand the symbolism of pieces of a puzzle as a representation for autism, however it was first used symbolically in the 1960s he says. After his son was first diagnosed, he saw the puzzle imagery and thought “what does that mean?”
He and Norma now better grasp that depiction and explain why they incorporated it into the patch.
“The puzzle pieces represent the spectrums of autism and the more educated we become the more we begin to solve the puzzle,” says Brian. “Autism falls under a behavioral disorder. It’s not a mental disorder and that’s one of the common misconceptions. People think if you are autistic, it’s a disease of the mind and it is not. It’s a behavioral disorder.”
“To be able to puzzle all of the different pieces of my son together and to be able to come to a single picture of what autism is, that is what the puzzle pieces mean. There are so many colors because there is such variation in what autism means,” Norma says. “I think our son has yet to understand how big of an impact he has made in our lives.”
“Awareness of autism brings an understanding to the situation that a police officer may find himself in. Being aware the person you are contacting could potentially be on the spectrum could help with de-escalation techniques and could help with rapport and relationship building,” Brian says.
“For example, those on the spectrum are overstimulated by the sirens, or the lights that are on our vehicles, or our flashlights at night. Officers in uniform are authority figures; we use command presence with our voice. If we are cognizant of that, we can recognize that if someone potentially is on the spectrum we can temper the environment and make it a little bit more pleasant to interact with the person,” he adds. “The spectrum is so wide, just a good general understanding of what those behaviors look like – like stimming with the fingers – I think goes miles for safety for the community and for law enforcement.”
Brian said there is autism-related mandated training by the state and then there is supplemental training to prepare officers to face all kinds of behavioral disorders as well. He points to the need for officers to understand individuals on the autism spectrum and be able to distinguish their traits from who may have mental disorders.
“So, we do have training on trying to identify the differences between the two,” he says, but points out that police officers are not doctors and making a clear diagnosis of a person’s situation in the field could sometimes be challenging.
“The whole goal is to educate our department and our officers, so they are more aware of the symptomology and the behavioral symptomology of the people they interact with,” he says. “The approach, the tactical approach, the communicative approach, is one of safety and compassion and patience and de-escalation.”
According to the Corlettos, the community is being very supportive of the police department’s awareness campaign.
“It’s nice that the community sees that the City of Whittier is aware and that they know autistic families and people are being recognized by the department,” says Norma. “It is nice that the community is coming together. In the autism community this is huge for us.”
She has been a nurse for 10 years and was recently promoted into a managerial role as the new medical practice manager for six of the urgent care locations for her hospital, PIH Health. She smiles as she talks about overhearing patients at the urgent care locations talking about the police department’s focus on autism.
“They come into our urgent cares and say, ‘Do you know that Whittier PD is advocating for Autism?’” Norma explains.
The patches are only available for purchase at the Whittier Police Department or the Police Services Center in Santa Fe Springs, a neighboring community where Whittier provides police services by contract. But ambitions are already set to expand availability next year. Both Brian and Norma hope to find a way by next April to make the Whittier Police autism patches available for online purchases.
“There are a lot of people that I know that want to collect these patches,” adds Norma.
Parents Face Autism
The Corlettos are raising three children; Destiny, 15; Dylan, 6; and Demi, 2. Their son Dylan was diagnosed with autism when he was 18 months old, and it was hard on Norma and Brian.
“When our son was diagnosed it was devastating. I didn’t know anything about it. I thought it was some kind of mental disorder, he’s going to be intellectually held back, he’s going to be bullied the rest of his life, be made fun of, and all these other things,” Brian says. “There was a great amount of anxiety and fear I had. I think there is a natural reaction of denial because I was in that state. I didn’t want to accept that.”
Norma agrees that the diagnosis hit hard, especially for her husband.
“It was a hard time for him. We fought. I remember he told me ‘You just want our son to be sick’,” Norma said. “That will forever stick with me because it is not an illness. The more he learned about it and read and educated himself he understood that it was almost a gift. Dylan is so intelligent,” she said.
Brian said when Dylan was diagnosed doctors said that 1 in 89 children were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder but more recent reports indicate that ratio is now 1 in 44. He thought that initial number was incredible, but says the newer numbers show just how prevalent autism has become.
“The more awareness the better because it impacts all of us,” Brian says.
Norma has done her part in her profession to help educate others in the field about autism. She has visited several emergency departments in Southern California and provided an education program, not as a nurse but from parental a viewpoint, about how to care for a child or adult with autism in an emergency setting, emergency room, or urgent care facility. She has had great response and feedback from those other healthcare workers.
Before the Corlettos could now reach the point of helping educate others, they first had to learn more when Dylan was diagnosed. In retrospect, they are glad they began interventions in the early days after their son’s diagnosis.
“If you were to read the reports that he had from when he was first diagnosed to now, he is a completely different kid. He used to bang his head on the walls, he used to hum about 80 percent of his day. It was to the point it would bother everybody in the house. It was just a constant hum, and it was a regulation – a form of being able to regulate himself,” Norma says. “With the interventions like Applied Behavioral Analysis (APA) therapy, the occupational therapy, and the speech therapy you would be surprised how much it helped.”
Has all of this made you stronger as parents?
“That’s going to make me cry, and I think yes,” Norma says. “I really think so. I think it has helped us to grow in our marriage too because there is a lot of patience that has to go with this.”
Brian chimes in, saying “I can’t think of a stronger word than patience.”
“It’s a loss of your privacy. You have therapists that come to your house daily,” he says. “Dylan is high functioning, which means mild. His therapy was about 10 hours a week. Some unfortunate parents have it up to 40 hours, a full work week of therapy on top of their lives.”
Norma says when therapists come into the home to work with a child on the autism spectrum parents cannot just step aside. They participate.
“Therapists are in your home constantly and you have to be actively working with your child. You can’t just treat them like a babysitter. You have to actively be there. It’s very personal,” she says.
For parents of a child with autism the home life can be drastically altered, Brian explains.
“You change your habits, you change your environment, I can’t listen to loud music, certain lights, certain foods. Autism is your five senses. Dylan only likes crunchy foods, so good luck with mash potatoes, which we successfully just got him on,” Brian says. “It’s those little challenges that change the way you parent.”
At times, family outings can also present challenges. Both parents say Dylan often does not like meeting someone new, especially common childhood characters. On a family trip to Disneyland, Dylan met Mickey Mouse for the first time.
“It was incredibly scary. Some kids cry, but for him he was just physically scared and frozen solid,” Norma says. “Little by little we would show him the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus, and others like that.”
The bigger challenge on the trip to Disneyland, was more unexpected. Brian says the toilets in the restrooms at Disneyland were very noisy. They scared Dylan.
“They were so loud when they flush. They’re normal to us and we never think about it. But, to him it was like a 747 taking off,” Brian says.
Brian points to a movie scene in "Man of Steel" where a young Clark Kent gets his powers, is overwhelmed by his senses, runs from the classroom, and tries to escape by hiding in a closet. Parents of children with autism relate to that scene.
“That scene, we have been told, is pretty accurate for those on the spectrum,” Brian says.
Other departments around the country also are placing emphasis on dealing with individuals on the autism spectrum or showing support during April.
The Miami-Dade Police Department will provide autism and sensory training to every officer by 2023. Elsewhere in California, the Beaumont Police Department also unveiled an autism awareness patch. Officers there are hoping to meet children on the spectrum when they stop by to pick up a patch.
The Bedford (MA) Police Department also has a special autism patch, as does the Maine State Police and Maine State Troopers Foundation. Maine state troopers will display autism-themed license plates during the month of April.