Metro program provides stickers to people with special needs to improve encounters with first-responders

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GARDNER, Kan. -- The Johnson County Sheriff's Office is helping first responders better interact with those with special needs.

Deputies this week began giving away stickers to help identify people with autism or other special needs.

The sheriff's office started its "Take Me Home" program  seven years ago as a registry where kids with autism or seniors with dementia could be identified at the touch of a keystroke for first responders arriving at a call.

Deputies this week are taking the program one step further by giving away window cling stickers to put on car windows or windows of homes. The identifiers let first responders know that they may have to approach someone differently that they encounter.

The sheriff's office says Take Me Home is an effort to help first responders and families of those with special needs prevent situations from being misinterpreted and resulting in tragedy.

"The benefit of them is for first responders, whether it’s police, fire or medical when they respond to a call or are on a traffic stop," said Deputy Claire Canaan of the sheriff's office. "It’s just kind of an alert to them. There may be a special needs person present in that home or in that vehicle. They may not respond to verbal commands. They may not react like somebody who does not have special needs. So it’s a benefit to first responders and families."

In 2016, police shot and killed a man with autism in Hays, Kan., after the victim failed to follow an officer's commands.

A mother of two autistic children says she's had her own signs on her SUV for years. She believes they already have helped prevent contacts with police from escalating. She says her daughter is sensitive to bright lights and loud noises and officers are more likely to turn lights and sirens off if they quickly identify a person with special needs.

"We immediately pulled over," said Jennifer Smith, of Gardner, Kan. "My daughter was in the back seat. She was screaming and having a major meltdown. I rolled the window down. I put my hands out the window and I yelled, 'Please turn your lights off and your sirens down. I have a daughter with autism.' She immediately went back and turned everything off and came back to tell me I had a headlight out."

The identifying stickers are available at all four Johnson County sheriff locations. Deputies have already had to order more and say it's also helped boost online "Take Me Home" registrations that provide important identifying information to all law enforcement officers in the county.