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Youngstown police donate ‘help belts’ to Rich Center for Autism

YOUNGSTOWN — Becky Henry’s two sons, Liam and Lucas, are on the autism spectrum, and even though Liam is highly verbal, she worries about how he might respond to potentially highly stressful situations — such as perhaps one day being pulled over during a traffic stop.

Nevertheless, a small and practical device has allayed some of her concerns in a big way.

“This is actually a game changer,” Henry said, referring to a 9-inch Help Belt safety alert seat-belt cover. “(Liam) loses his ability to communicate when he’s stressed.”

The soft and durable devices, developed by Susan Byczko, a Tennessee mother of a child on the autism spectrum, are affixed to seat belts and alert police, firefighters and other first responders to a child or adult’s medical needs and diagnoses. They also can go a long way toward de-escalating encounters between police and those with an autism or other diagnosis.

The covers also were made abundant when the Youngstown Police Department donated 100 of them to the Rich Center for the Study and Treatment of Autism during a parent conference Thursday morning at the center in Youngstown State University’s Fedor Hall.

The devices, which also can be attached to backpacks, clearly state on the outside that the person has autism, might be nonverbal and unable to respond to commands.

They unsnap, and inside are lists that contain one’s medical information, emergency contacts and medications being taken.

Lt. William Ross of the department’s traffic division cited a July 19, 2017, incident in which a Buckeye, Ariz., police officer who was patrolling in a park saw a 14-year-old boy on the spectrum named Connor Leibel making self-stimulating movements with a string near his mouth and thought the teen had just inhaled drugs. The situation escalated after the officer had told Leibel not to walk away, then grabbed his arm and tried to restrain him, causing both to hit a tree and fall.

Leibel’s parents filed a $5 million lawsuit against the city and its police department.

Self-stimulation, often called “stimming,” refers to various types of repetitive body movements many people on the spectrum make to relax or cope with stress.

“It turned out the kid was autistic,” Ross said. “Had they known he was autistic, he would have been handled differently.”

In addition to preventing possible dangerous encounters between police and someone on the spectrum, the belts can result in an officer with special training in handling crises being called to the scene, Ross continued.

“For us, it’s about de-escalation,” he added.

Capt. Jason Simon noted that about 66 percent of Youngstown police officers are trained in crisis-intervention techniques, which far exceeds the county’s goal of 25 percent.

The YPD has partnered with the Help Belt program, and money for the 100 devices came from the department’s traffic funds, Simon explained.

Melanie Carfolo, the Rich Center’s executive director, said the devices are highly beneficial also because many of the facility’s students take medications, so it’s critical that first responders are privy to that information.

For Henry, the Help Belts also mean a great deal of peace of mind.

“It takes some of the stress and burden off,” she said, adding that Lucas has been with the Rich Center about nine years. “The more we raise awareness (of autism), the more we can understand.”

To obtain a free belt, call the center at 330-941-1927.

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