The small blue puzzle piece that UTA Transit Police Department officers wear on their lapels might not mean much to the average person. To a person with an autism spectrum disorder, however, it signifies that the officer understands their needs – and is there to help.

Every officer in the department has been specially trained to identify and assist riders with autism and other types of “invisible disabilities” - disabilities that can influence a person’s behavior but aren’t always apparent by looking at them. The training teaches officers how to distinguish between riders with disabilities who may need assistance and riders who are intentionally evading police or refusing to listen to police commands.

“People on the spectrum often engage in behaviors that can be misinterpreted,” said UTA Transit Police Chief Fred Ross, who created the program. “They won’t look you in the eye, they won’t talk to you, and it can mimic the behavior of someone who is trying to elude police.” 

This training proved to be critical last year, when a young man with non-verbal autism ran away from home and made his way onto the UTA system. UTA police were notified and were able to coax the man off the train, call his family, and keep him safe and calm by watching the trains until his mother picked him up.

In addition to UTA police officers, Ross has shared the training with all UTA bus regional managers and hopes to eventually train all UTA bus operators.

“It would be foolish of us to not be trained on every possible aspect to be better guardians and ambassadors for people with disabilities,” he said.