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First responders attend training for autism, mental health at Lackawanna College

Times-Tribune - 8/1/2022

Aug. 2—SCRANTON — As the 7-year-old girl screamed on screen, Gary Weitzen directed the audience's attention to how her mother handled it with a soothing voice and attempts to redirect her daughter's attention.

The girl was diagnosed with autism. The 50 or so people who followed along were first responders interested in bettering their skills.

"This is not a tantrum," Weitzen, executive director of POAC Autism Services, of Brick Twp., New Jersey, told the group.

The Lackawanna County district attorney's office, in conjunction with the state police, organized a day-long training Monday at Lackawanna College so first responders can better recognize and respond to those with autism as well as those with mental health issues.

"I think what we learned today is very valuable to share with our community, with other first responders," Archbald Police Chief Tim Trently said.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Northeast Region PA and the Northeastern Pennsylvania Crisis Intervention Team presented de-escalation techniques to help those in a mental health crisis, as well as how to direct them to appropriate care systems. Since it's founding in 2010, nearly 400 people have gone through the CIT training, said Marie Onukiavage, executive director of the local NAMI chapter.

District Attorney Mark Powell said the training is timely because the COVID-19 pandemic's isolation exacerbated mental health issues with which many struggle. It also provides police officers with information and training to make their jobs easier at a moment it is harder to recruit new officers because of increased scrutiny.

"We expect more and more from our cops and first responders than ever," Powell said. "It's simply more than making arrests or showing up at a scene."

Weitzen said the training, administered to more than 70,000 first responders nationwide, aims to help them learn about the communication and sensory challenges those on the autism spectrum experience and how best to get them to follow commands.

"It's so important because it can go so wrong so quickly," Weitzen said. "Not getting it right can be tragic to everybody involved."

Contact the writer:, 570-348-9100, x5187; @jkohutTT on Twitter.


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