It was a cold winter morning, there was snow on the ground, and 12-year-old Jake Edwards needed to get something out of the car. He walked outside to his mother’s car, which was parked in front of his house, and suddenly he realized it was very cold, and there was snow all around and his body was very cold. He panicked and started screaming very loudly.
He began to run around his Germantown neighborhood screaming. Jake was wearing only his underwear. Jake’s neighbors heard him and saw him. They called 911. Jake has Autism.
Jake had no way of knowing it at the time, but the event would eventually lead to his appointment as the Autistic Community’s Ambassador to the Montgomery County Police Department’s Autism Safety Night Out. At the event Jake would give a speech that would be the highlight of the evening.
“The police were not happy with me,” said Jake recently of the incident that took place last winter. “There was one officer who was very mean looking.” Members of the Montgomery County Police arrived and found Jake and got him home safe. There were no charges filed. The neighbors knew who Jake was and were aware of his condition. They just wanted to make sure he was safe.
While Jake and his family know that it wasn’t one Jake’s greatest moments, it did lead to what could be, perhaps Jake’s proudest moment.
After the incident, Montgomery County Police Officer Laurie Reyes met with Jake and his family. Reyes heads the MCPD’s Autism and Alzheimer’s Outreach Program, Project Lifesaver. Reyes said she knew she had found someone special in Jake.
“Jake is life changing. He will change the world,” said Reyes of young Jake, who is a 6th grader at the Kennedy Krieger School-Montgomery County Campus in Rockville.
Reyes was putting together the program for the 3rd Annual Autism Safety Night Out event held on May 29 at Public Safety Headquarters in Rockville. “I wanted to showcase someone with Autism,” said Reyes, “and not just a figurehead like me, or Chief Manger standing up there talking about how we are honoring individuals with Autism.” Reyes wanted to feature someone from the community that MCPD had had interactions with and give the person the ability to speak about his experience. She thought of Jake.
“I knew from the moment that his Mom asked me to come speak to Jake after he had his episode, that Jake had a lot to offer,” said Reyes. “I wanted to capture that. You can see it in the video, you can’t listen to that speech and not walk away without feeling like you have a little better idea of what he’s going through.”
And what he’s going through is often hard for him to understand and even harder for someone that isn’t intimately involved with a person on the Autism Spectrum to understand., Someone like a police officer who might come upon an adult with Autism, who might be nonverbal, walking down the road or wandering in the street. If that officer who is already suspicious of the individual asks a simple question, and doesn’t get an answer or gets a nonsensical answer, or scares the individual. He or she might take off running because they are scared.
“If you have a young man with Autism, like Jake, who is trying to gain some level of independence there are going to be some bumps in the road,” said Reyes. “Law enforcement should be more understanding and educated to make those bumps less serious so that we as police officers, know how to handle it.”
Reyes said that each week MCPD handles two or three cases of Autism elopement, which is how the Autism community refers to a situation when an individual on the Autism Spectrum wanders off. “At least half of all individuals with autism will have one elopement,” said Reyes. “The police come into play when that individual is at immediate risk to themselves.”
Reyes has been working with the Autism and Alzheimer’s communities of Montgomery County since she started Project Lifesaver in 2004. According to Reyes, the program places tracking bracelets on individuals on the Autism Spectrum and those with Alzheimer’s. Over the course of working with the community, Reyes found that the department needed to be more proactive than reactive. “We decided that we needed more outreach to prevent the elopements in the first place,” she said.
“In the last five years, we have created a more total approach to responding to calls for service for individuals with Autism and intellectual or developmental disability. We have Autism Safety Night Out. It was started in 2014, as a way to have individuals with Autism and officers come together in a fun environment and learn from each other on a first hand basis.”
In his speech, to more than 300 people gathered for Autism Night Out, Jake explained Autism as his “super powers” that may make him act or feel certain ways at times and the importance of others understanding these super powers.
“Having Autism means that my brain works really, really fast and sometimes I can’t slow down,” said Jake in his speech, which he wrote himself, with some polishing by Mom. “Sometimes I can’t make the best choices because my brain is fast and knowing all the consequences is hard. My superpowers allow me to have very strong senses and very deep emotions. I want to make people happy, and I can feel if they are not happy.”
“The police were very nice to me,” Jake said in the speech. “But they were not happy that they had to use the lights and sirens to hurry to my house because I was acting silly.” He went on to say, “Sometimes my Autism makes my body feel out of control. I feel like I want to run away, or jump up and scream, and that can be very scary. I can get out of control when I feel scared, or confused, or I don’t know what is going to happen next.”
Jake’s Mom, Jenn Lynn said that Jake dictated the speech to her, and she occasionally made suggestions and edits, but essentially the entire speech was written by Jake.
Reyes said that he did such an amazing job with the speech that the MCPD has asked Jake to deliver the speech to the recruits in the Montgomery County Police Academy.
“I asked our command staff at the Police Academy if Jake could come in and read his speech to the recruit class at the police academy. It is very dynamic that this child -- who is just 12 -- will come in and our officers will stand at attention when he walks in the room. Jake will tell them to sit down, and he will read his speech to them. It is better than anything that I could teach to them about Autism,” said Reyes.
“Someone recently asked me what one of the best days in my career was,” said Reyes, “Without a doubt, it was May 29 and hearing Jake finish his speech.”
Jake has also been asked to give the speech at an Autism Night out in South Carolina, where he has cousins. To watch Jake’s full speech and his amazing and heart-warming reaction to finishing his speech, follow the link here.