The event has a long name and a very simple purpose: protecting some of Montgomery County’s most vulnerable people.
On May 19, the Montgomery County Police Department hosts the fifth Autism/Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) Night Out. For the first time, the event takes place at the Montgomery County Public Safety Training Academy in Gaithersburg, located at 8751 Snouffer School Road.
“The main goal is to get law enforcement and autism and IDD people together to learn from each other,” said Officer Laurie Reyes, who heads MCPD’s Project Lifesaver program that oversees the event along with other outreach efforts involving people with autism and developmental disabilities.
Examples of IDD conditions include cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and other conditions characterized by significant differences in cognitive functioning.
Last year, Reyes estimated about 40 police officers from around the county and about 300 people attended the Night Out. A key part of the event is bringing the two groups together to meet and socialize.
“There’s a sense of inclusion,” Reyes said. “We want there to be positive interactions. But the truth is, this is really multilayered.”
It’s a straightforward goal on its face, but it has an important purpose. Autistic people are known to leave home or “wander,” leading to missing persons reports and searches. This becomes particularly worrisome in the warm-weather months, as autistic people are often drawn to bodies of water like swimming pools, posing a clear safety hazard.
MCPD officers frequently receive calls to assist a caregiver in locating a person who has wandered. On average, MCPD officers investigate two missing or wander cases each week that involve an autistic child, according to MCPD data.
If an officer can more quickly recognize an autistic or IDD person in their community, they can more quickly identify that person in cases of wandering. That familiarity carries over to caregivers and families, Reyes said. Furthermore, ID bracelets handed out at the Night Out event can be crucial information providers in high-intensity moments.
Officers also gain familiarity and expertise from the event. “If we receive a call involving an autistic or IDD individual, we should be educated on interacting with that person,” Reyes said. “If a family is in crisis or an autistic child is having a meltdown, the officer should be able to take the call to the next level, and put them in touch with other resources.”
MCPD is the leading organizer of the event, but they did so in partnership with groups including Autism Speaks, Pathfinders For Autism, and the Down Syndrome Network of Montgomery County. Along with information and meet-and-greets, people attending also have the chance to meet K-9 police dogs, tour emergency vehicles, and take a turn with face painters and a moon bounce.