AKRON, Ohio -- Akron Police Sgt. Mark Farrar knows the facts of autism in his head and the pain of autism in his heart.
With the incidence of autism rising rapidly -- 1 in 88 children (and 1 in 54 boys) are born with some form of it -- law-enforcement agencies are being affected because, Farrar says, the autistic are seven times as likely as others to come into contact with first responders such as police, fire and paramedics. They also are more likely to be crime victims.
"We talk about autism in kids as if they mysteriously disappear when they become adults," Farrar said yesterday at Attorney General Mike DeWine's "Two Days in May" crime-victims conference in the Hyatt Regency. "Those kids are growing up, becoming adults, living in our communities. We can't assume first responders know how to deal with them on their own."
Farrar, 39, who spends half his time patrolling the streets of Akron, has a son Kyle, 5, who has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Farrar became a self-taught expert on the subject after his son's autism was diagnosed, and he now trains law-enforcement and other organizations about autism, often on his own time.
Autism is a development disorder that often shows up early in childhood. It is marked by communication and behavioral issues but is not mental retardation.
An audience of 1,000 was spellbound yesterday as Farrar blended the story of his family's struggles raising Kyle and the growing trend for autistic individuals to become victims and sometimes perpetrators of crime. He showed a clip from the Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman movie Rain Man, offering a glimpse of life with autism.
"We have to convince police there's a need for this training, not because I have a son, but because of research and statistics," he said. "As I say in training law enforcement, 'This is coming to a call near you.' "
One of Farrar's gripping stories was about Gertrude Steuernagel, a political-science professor at Kent State University who was stomped to death in 2009 by her autistic son, Sky Walker, then 18. When police arrived at the house, he said, "Mama hurt. Kicking Mama," Farrar said.
Steuernagel, who dealt with her son's erratic and increasingly violent behavior for years, left a message locked in a safe in her bedroom. "This is my fault, not Sky's," she wrote. "I do not want him to be punished for something he was not responsible for."
The court decided that Walker was incompetent. He was not convicted and is in a mental-health facility.
In an interview, Farrar discussed the devastation he and his wife felt when Kyle's behavior problems were diagnosed. As a toddler, Kyle came into his parents' room early every morning, screaming loudly. He was sensitive to changes in light and sound. He had trouble communicating.
With treatment, Kyle's behavior has improved. But Farrar said autism is not something he will outgrow. It will always be with him.
On Farrar's website, www.autismawareness4firstresponders.com, he has information about autism, along with a short video about his son.
"I love Kyle now more than ever," Farrar says at the end. "Every day I am around him, he makes me a better man. ... Kyle is truly a remarkable son who I wouldn't change for the world."