DPS Celebrates World Autism Awareness Day and Launches HEART Initiative

Helping Enhance Autism Response Training logo
Friday, April 3, 2020 - 1:48pm

The Department of Public Safety kicked off National Autism Awareness Month and celebrated World Autism Awareness Day on April 2 by hosting an online briefing for law enforcement and first responders. The event also launched the department’s autism awareness initiative – HEART (Helping Enhance Autism Response Training). 

National expert and author Dennis Debbaudt delivered the hour-long briefing to participants from state, county and city agencies across North Carolina. The training provided insight into autism spectrum disorder and focused on best practices for safely interacting with individuals on the spectrum and responding to wandering-related emergencies. 
“In North Carolina, we recognize autism spectrum disorder affects all genders, races and socioeconomic backgrounds and the important role law enforcement and first responders play in keeping all of society safe,” said DPS Secretary Erik A. Hooks. “We are proud to recognize World Autism Awareness Day and National Autism Awareness Month with this important training and launch of our HEART initiative.”

The originally scheduled in-depth, day-long training by Debbaudt was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.The goal of the training is to further safe contacts among first responders, law enforcement and individuals with autism. The training is important because 1 among 54 children are identified as having autism, and the social, communication and behavioral issues associated with the disability may present unique challenges during an emergency or other stressful situation.

“This training and initiative are very important to the safety of North Carolinians,” said State Capitol Police Chief Chip Hawley. “Not only is it a growing segment of the population, but there is also a higher rate of contact with law enforcement due to wandering-related emergencies. Officers must use best practices during such interactions for the safety of all involved.”

As part of the HEART initiative, DPS representatives will participate in community events to continue engaging and building relationships with North Carolinians with autism spectrum disorder and their families. DPS participants will distribute decals to persons with autism and/or their caregivers, which will notify law enforcement and first responders that an occupant of a vehicle or home has autism. 

In addition, following the in-depth training, DPS will distribute decals to law enforcement and fire departments. The decal will distinguish a room at their facility as an autism sensory safe space to help reduce over-stimulation. 


Dabney Weems