Ohio lawmakers are in the early stages of writing a bill that would alert law-enforcement officers when they are encountering an individual with a communication disability.

House Bill 115, which is in committee with the Ohio House of Representatives, would establish a voluntary state database for individuals who have been diagnosed with a communication disability. Their caregivers also could register.

Video •Kevin Miller, executive director of Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, and his son, Connor, speak last March about their testimony on House Bill 115. Courtesy of Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities

Scott Wiggam (R-Wooster) and Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green) co-sponsored the bill, which has been in development for some time.

Kevin Miller, executive director of Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, said he has been working on the idea for more than three years.

He drew inspiration from his son, Connor, now 18, who was diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder as a child.

As Miller faced the idea of his son driving, he said, he wanted to try to find a way to make the process safer for Connor and others.

Miller said he had been pitching the registry to lawmakers, but the idea didn't find traction until he heard Wiggam was working on something similar.

At the same time, Wiggam said, he started looking into options and quickly learned about Miller and his project.

The representative from Wooster said he was moved by a call from a constituent who had similar concerns about his autistic son beginning to drive.

"I wish I would have found him a few years earlier," Miller said. "We might have been able to make this happen."

The registry

For Miller and Wiggam, putting limitations on HB 115 is an important part of the process.

Wiggam researched other states and found that other programs included some kind of label on the individual's driver's license or license plate.

Neither wanted that.

"We don't want to have this giant red letter that's on someone's card that says, 'I have a disability,' " Miller said. "It's the critical piece."

To alter that trend, Miller and Wiggam have designed the registry to be as noninvasive as possible. The database would be completely voluntary and part of the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System, commonly known as LEADS.

The database would not be open to public-records requests and would not be visible to anyone other than police officers, they said.

With the registry in place, an officer who runs an individual's license or plate would see a note that the individual has a communication disability.

The phrase "communication disability" also allows for a wide range of interpretations, they said. With a doctor's certification, individuals with autism-spectrum disorder, Tourette syndrome, cerebral palsy or loss of hearing all could register.

Jon Scowden, assistant chief of the Westerville Division of Police, has been involved with autism training for law-enforcement officers throughout central Ohio for years.

He said the lack of specificity isn't important and officers simply would benefit from being more aware that they're approaching someone with a disability.

"(The registry) doesn't want to get too far into the weeds. ... They just want to tell officers that someone who is driving or may be in the vehicle has a communication disability," he said. "It's just to inform the officer and give them one more step to keep them and the public safe."

If the bill and the registry it creates seem like a fairly small measure, it's intentional.

Miller and Wiggam said they didn't want a wide-reaching piece of legislation. They just wanted something to help.

"We think it's a good start," Wiggam said. "We do not come out and say this is a fix-all. It's a very limited bill ... because we want to make sure it's voluntary and we want to make sure there are no labels on it. Once we even started talking about whether there would be something on a license, groups started splintering away."

For example, he said, some members of the autistic community wanted an emblem on licenses, while deaf-advocacy groups weren't comfortable with the idea.

Miller said he also wanted to make clear the goal of the registry was not to give anyone special treatment because it is intended primarily to avoid confusion.

"If someone is speeding and breaking the law and they have a disability and they deserve a citation, they deserve a citation," he said. "This isn't an excuse for anyone; it's just to give the officer the information that the person has a disability."

A two-part approach

To avoid confusion and misunderstandings, Scowden said, the registry would need to be accompanied by another component: training.

"We can teach officers all day long what autism looks like and how to deal with people with autism," he said. "But without a registry, they won't know that's what they're dealing with. You can't just diagnose someone in a few seconds."

Scowden, whose 22-year-old son, Tyler, is autistic, has been working with Carolyn Gutowski of the Isaac Wiles law firm in Columbus to create a training program.

Scowden and Gutowski already have conducted short versions of the training, and they said they are ready to present their first full training June 14 through the Central Ohio Risk Management Association, a local self-insurance pool. CORMA includes Canal Winchester, Dublin, Grove City, Groveport, Pickerington, Powell, Upper Arlington and Westerville.

Scowden said officers are "going to see this happen more and more" as more autistic individuals begin driving, and he wants to provide education and resources to protect everyone involved.

"I'm on both sides of the issue here," he said. "I'm a police officer, but I'm also a father of an autistic child. And I'm also an administrator with the department, so I see a major risk for liability."

Gutowski also is a parent of an autistic child. Her 4-year-old son, Leo, was diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder and goes to Oakstone Academy, a Westerville school that has programs for students on the autism spectrum.

In working with leaders at Oakstone and other autism-education advocates, Gutowski said, she has helped compile the education portion of the training that she and Scowden will lead.

She said she hopes to make officers think about the possibility they might be encountering someone with autism or another disability when they observe odd behaviors. Those behaviors might include lack of eye contact, poor motor coordination, hand flapping, rocking, speech repetition and scripting, all of which sometimes could be mistaken for deception, impairment or criminal misconduct.

"We want them to start thinking, 'That could be someone plotting a crime, but it could also be someone with autism,' " Gutowski said.

ThisWeek has covered two recent police encounters with autistic individuals, both of which involved the Dublin Police Department.

In September 2016, Dublin officers arrested a 29-year-old autistic man they suspected of driving under the influence. The charges were dismissed when tests for alcohol proved negative.

In March, Dublin officers arrested an 18-year-old autistic man who was believed to be taking photographs near Deer Run Elementary School in a suspicious manner.

A school-resource officer asked the man to leave the school grounds. He left, but returned a short time later, sparking a physical altercation when he failed to comply with the officer's commands and resulting in the officer using an electroshock weapon to subdue him.

Again, the charges were dropped after police learned the man was autistic.

Dublin police spokeswoman Lindsay Weisenauer said Chief Heinz von Eckartsberg, who also is chairman of the legislative committee for the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police, “strongly supports” House Bill 115 and will be “following the process closely.”

Von Eckartsberg also spoke with ThisWeek earlier this month about the June training session, to which Dublin, Gahanna, New Albany, Powell, Upper Arlington and Westerville are expected to send officers.

"Autism awareness is a growing priority for communities across the country and around the world," von Eckartsberg said. "Here in Ohio, state and city leaders are looking at ways to better interact with individuals who have communication disorders."

Next steps

HB 115 still is a long way from reality.

It would need to make it through the House committee, proceed to the Ohio Senate, go back to the House for a vote and then move on to Gov. John Kasich. From there, it would take effect 90 days after the governor's signature.

But Wiggam said he is confident in the bill's prospects and has heard nothing to suggest it won't pass. He said he hopes the bill could be back on the House floor as early as May 13.

"I have not heard anything negative," he said.

According to the bill's fiscal notes, the costs to the state associated with the registry are estimated at $250,000 upfront to create the new database and integrate it with LEADS. If additional staff members are hired or work continues after the system's creation, annual costs could reach $120,000.

In a state budget of about $70 billion, Wiggam said, that figure represents the "smallest financial burden we could do," but he sees it as a "worst-case scenario."

"I think $250,000 is a lot of money," he said. "I'm hoping that they do a lot of rounding when they look at this. ... I'm still a little shocked by that number."

For Miller, the signing of HB 115 would represent a full-circle journey. He said he was "angry at the world" when he found out about his son's diagnosis, but he sought the position at Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities and eventually began working on the bill out of a "need to find a purpose for myself."

The project has become his passion, he said, and one that he approaches not only as an executive, but "as a dad."

"We had done all this legwork; it's nice to know that government can come together and do something good," he said.

ThisWeek reporter Sarah Sole contributed to this story.

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