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Blue envelopes to help AZ drivers with autism during traffic stops

Law enforcement trained at University of Arizona Wednesday
Posted at 6:35 PM, Apr 24, 2024

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Arizona is rolling out a program to help law enforcement and drivers with autism communicate during traffic stops, to create a smoother and safer experience.

Getting pulled over can be stressful for anyone, especially those on the autism spectrum.

“This is pretty personal to me,” said Arizona Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Division director Eric Jorgensen. “Somebody who I care a lot for, who is a driver, a young driver, on the autism spectrum… He had a less-than-optimal encounter, exchange with law enforcement. And it was just a lack of understanding between both parties.”

That’s where the blue envelope comes in. It is a way to keep important documents like registration and proof of insurance together. On one side are reminders for the driver or passenger with autism, and the other side are reminders for the police officer.

People with autism do not always respond to the interaction with an officer the same way neurotypical people do, which can lead to confusion, misunderstanding or escalation.

“The blue envelope itself is the visual cue to the officer that the driver has autism or spectrum disorder,” said University of Arizona Police Chief Chris Olson. “So it doesn’t even have to be spoken… The officer knows what to do at that point.

“Things such as slowing your speech down. Speaking in clear terms. Turning your lights off if you can… Being very direct to the individual so there is no misunderstanding of what you’re asking the driver to do.”

Several agencies partnered to bring a law enforcement training to the UArizona campus on Wednesday, which included both a classroom portion and a traffic stop simulation.

UAPD, Sahuarita PD and the Arizona Department of Public Safety were among the law enforcement agencies present.

The training was put together by university’s Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences and Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (ArizonaLEND) training program.

“We’re talking about the core features of autism, so that has to do with social communication difficulties, so interactions with other people,” UArizona SLHS assistant professor Nell Maltman explained. “But also patterns of restricted and repetitive behaviors… So that… people are more aware of what to expect.”

“If I walk up to a traffic stop and somebody hands me this blue envelope, instantly I now know that ‘ok, somebody in this vehicle, whether the driver or one of the other occupants, may be on the autistic spectrum,’” said Sgt. Eric Andrews of Arizona DPS. “So I may need to communicate a little differently with them just to help them understand clearly and definitively, what’s happening, why did they get stopped, why am I contacting them, what’s gonna happen from here on out.”

The inspiration to bring the program to Arizona came from a similar program launched in Connecticut in 2020. Retired Connecticut police chief Joe Dooley, a friend of Olson’s, came to Wednesday’s training in Tucson.

“Law enforcement has embraced this no matter what state it is in,” he told KGUN. “Having police officers trained in this, to better understand it, deescalates situations. It really helps with the communication.”

Law enforcement training will continue statewide.

People can pick up blue envelopes at MVD offices starting in May.

Ryan Fish is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9 and comes to the Sonoran Desert from California’s Central Coast after working as a reporter, sports anchor and weather forecaster in Santa Barbara. Ryan grew up in the Chicago suburbs, frequently visiting family in Tucson. Share your story ideas and important issues with Ryan by emailing or by connecting on Facebook and Twitter.