'Blue Envelopes': ADOT program helps Az drivers with autism during traffic stops

A new program in Arizona is meant to help people with autism communicate with police. They can store registration and insurance papers in a blue envelope and hand it to an officer during traffic stops.

The effort, modeled after a “Blue Envelope” program in Connecticut, was proposed by University of Arizona Chief of Police Chris Olson last August.

“When I first learned about the program, I was a commander in Oro Valley, and I had every intention to start it there,” Olson said. “One of the challenges was finding doctors and specialists to write the curriculum, since it requires a high level of understanding. When I got appointed to the university, I immediately recognized that there were resources and I started making calls. I pitched the idea and they loved it.”

Olson learned that the Arizona Department of Transportation was working on its own Blue Envelope program. ADOT has now partnered with the Arizona Department of Public Safety,  the University of Arizona Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences and UA’s Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities training program, and UA Police Department to provide officers with training about the program.

The envelopes serve as a way for those with autism to store their license, insurance and registration information, and immediately communicate to the officer that they have a disorder. On the front and back of the envelopes are printed tips for both the driver and officer, and anyone with a disorder can utilize the envelopes.

People with autism may react differently to stressful stimuli or potentially have issues processing questions and commands, which can lead to miscommunication. “Stimming” is one example of an action that can cause communication problems. 

“Stimming is self-stimulatory behavior, they are repetitive motions that are done to calm the nervous system , so it can be anything from pacing back and forth, flapping their hands, bouncing their leg or playing with their fingernails. Everybody stims, it’s just that autistic people do it more pronounced and regularly,” said Kate Middleton, executive director of the Autism Society of Southern Arizona.

Middleton emphasized that autism is a spectrum, and that not every person will act the same way.

A survey in the United Kingdom last year asked 147 people with autism why they felt they could not communicate with police. Reasons ranged from not trusting officers, not being able to speak, not being able to process questions and feeling too stressed during interactions.

The blue envelope program is voluntary for drivers but can bring greater awareness of these behaviors and the reasons for them during police interactions.

“We know when we pull people over, if you have a disorder or not, your anxiety level raises and I can only imagine that will be exponentially greater with those with autism or other spectrum disorders,” UAPD’s Olson said.

“What I want to insure is that if a police officer goes up to someone and they have a blue envelope, that we can quickly adjust our communication, slow our cadence down, speak more clearly and turn our lights off. If we can communicate strongly, that’s always going to result in a safer outcome at the traffic stop,” Olson said.

Last Wednesday, officers from UAPD, DPS, the Sahuarita Police Department and other agencies attended training on the UA campus. Officers shared their experiences in a classroom setting and conducted role-playing exercises outside with a vehicle, simulating a traffic stop involving someone with autism. 

One scenario depicted a stop where a child in the backseat becomes erratic — a real situation officers face, said Surprise Police Department Lt. Garrik Boxberger.

“There have been times when there is a child in the back seat, and suddenly we have interrupted their routine by pulling the car over and they start jumping around and causing problems, so we have to be able to calm that child down, “Boxberger said. “I actually carry toys and stuffed animals in my car for those types of situations, to give the child something to focus on.”

Boxberger plans to propose training about the program in Surprise.

“We are in this together as a community, and it’s for us in the community to not just educate our citizens with autistic children, but let them know that we understand, and that we’re part of their team too.” Boxberger said.

The blue envelopes will be
available at Motor Vehicle Division locations and various law
enforcement agencies across the state, ADOT Director Eric Jorgenson said.

“Participation in the Blue Envelope Program is voluntary and
confidential. Neither MVD nor law enforcement will maintain records or a
database of participants,” officials said on ADOT website.