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The Unified Police Department has rolled out a new program to help them deal appropriately with autistic people, a first of its kind in Utah.

On a normal call, officers try to assert dominance to diffuse the situation and maintain control, Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said. But when dealing with someone who is autistic, the exact opposite is what works.

That difference in approaches was highlighted six months ago when a Holladay parent called police to deal with an autistic son, and the officers — unfamiliar with his circumstances — didn't handle him as well as they could have with more information, the sheriff said.

So starting now, parents and legal guardians of children with autism can register their child's information, including triggers and behaviors, into a database that dispatchers and officers can access en route to a call. Autistic adults can also add themselves to the list at

Generally speaking, "What can appear aggressive often is not," Winder said.

When an autistic person is being volatile and loud, officers will get better results if they respond calmly and give the person more room than they would in a normal situation, the sheriff explained at a Thursday news conference to announce the registry.

"I've seen when [police response] works well and when it doesn't," said Montell McDowell, the Murray mother of a 9-year-old autistic girl, who helped create the database.

McDowell said she consulted with other parents, experts at the University of Utah and law enforcement officers, who said they want specific information about autistic people before they arrive on a call.

"The officers ... want to make a difference," McDowell said.

The database is the first of its kind for Utah law enforcement — but given the mental condition's prevalence here, Jon Owen would like to see it expand. An estimated one in 54 Utahns has autism, which is higher than the national average of one in 68, said Owen, president of the Utah Autism Coalition.

"We want to see something like this statewide, even nationwide," Owen said.

Winder said he would like to see such databases expand to include other mental illnesses, as well, such as Alzheimer's. The autism registry is "a great first step," but "this is not by any means the end," he said.

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