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Viral interaction between autistic teen & Utah police highlights importance of training, compassion

Posted at 9:35 PM, Apr 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-19 23:38:42-04

SUMMIT COUNTY, Utah — It’s a story that has now been shared across the world that originated in California and ended in Park City.

FOX 13 News first reported the successful identification of a teenager reported missing in 2019 who ended up in Summit County within the last few weeks.

“I just think it’s a really unique situation that’s culminated in a month of Autism awareness,” said Summit County Sheriff Justin Martinez in an interview with FOX 13 last week.

The man who was found outside of a convenience store in Jeremy Ranch was Connerjack Oswalt, who had been reported missing out of Clearlake, California in September 2019. His family told FOX 13 that Connerjack has autism and ran away from his home.

Since the story was first shared, thousands of comments have been shared about the situation including people's own fears of their loved ones who are on the autism spectrum wandering off.

“The ‘getting home safe' part and navigating and the time while lost while being able to maintain safety is of critical importance,” said Arianna Esposito, Vice President of Services & Supports Lifespan Programs for Autism Speaks. “Sometimes for those on the autism spectrum, understanding a sense of danger and how to maintain safety, those can be areas that (some) on the autism spectrum might struggle with.”

While each autistic individual has their own unique characteristics of the disorder, Esposito says not all people have the characteristic of wandering or potentially running away.

“Some may need minimal support or moderate support, and there are some that need significant support. That would look like round-the-clock sort of 24/7 care to maintain their health and wellbeing,” said Esposito.

The evolution of understanding the autism spectrum disorder and its characteristics has evolved significantly so has the importance of law enforcement having a greater understanding on their own.

“An individual with autism is 7 times more likely to interact with law enforcement than the rest of us,” said Dr. Deborah Bilder with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

Bilder stressed the resources that are available for autistic people and their families in Utah. She also mentioned that research shows more than 2% of people in the state are on the autism spectrum.

“I think because of that training, that has really helped the deputies to identify this person," Martinez said. "Maybe they didn’t know what he had autism or that he had mental health issues. They were able to identify some of those trademark characteristics and behaviors of autism and mental health issues. I just think it’s a really unique situation that’s culminated in a month of Autism awareness.”