LANSING — Michigan residents with autism or hearing loss can get a special designation on licenses or identification cards advocates say will help keep them safe during encounters with police.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a package of bills Tuesday creating a “communication impediment” designation to go on vehicle registrations, drivers licenses and state identification cards. The law goes into effect next year.
People with autism, deafness or hearing loss voluntarily can sign up for the designation. Designations won’t be visible on licenses or ID cards, but police will be able to see them when they run plate numbers through the law enforcement information network.
People with autism can be sensitive to loud noises, bright lights and being touched, said Xavier DeGroat, an autism advocate and founder of the Xavier DeGroat Autism Foundation, based in Lansing.
Things that happen during police stops, like blaring sirens, loud vocal commands and a fast approach from an officer could make people with autism anxious and cause them to behave in ways officers might find strange or threatening.
“When the police get high tone at you or get close to you, that makes the person with autism stimulated, ‘sensory overload,’��it’s called,” DeGroat said. “This [designation] will make things better manageable for the two to communicate properly now that the person who is a police officer will know you have a communication issue.”
DeGroat, who has autism, hosted a forum on autism and policing last spring. He said he promoted the designation during the event and inspired the legislation signed into law this week. Lansing area Sens. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, and Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, sponsored two of the three bills in the package.
More: Lansing police chief, autism advocate join forces to train officers in a softer approach.
DeGroat is celebrating the new law, which feels like a “release” of pent-up stress, but he hasn’t rested. He wants other states and the federal government to create a designation for their jurisdictions.
“Today I started calling congresspeople to do a very similar bill,” he said Wednesday, a day after Whitmer signed the bill creating a communication impediment designation.
He also has developed brochures and fliers with information for officers about approaching someone with autism, identifying six steps for police: use a lower tone of voice, lower siren volume and dim lights, give plenty of space, use simple and concrete sentences, be patient and avoid touching.
Lansing Police Department officers received autism training four years ago, former Chief Mike Yankowski previously told the State Journal. The department also has a 40-hour crisis intervention training available for officers.
The Michigan Secretary of State will process requests for communication impediment designations starting in July 2021, Department of State Spokesperson Jake Rollow said.
The department will have the capacity to process designations once it gets a “rehaul” of its database in the spring, he said.
To get a designation, people must submit a certification signed by a health care professional that identifies them as someone with a communication impediment and describes the nature of that impediment.
Contact Carol Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @thompsoncarolk.