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Caldwell Police Department pulls the plug on divisive autism awareness patrol car

Idaho Statesman - 12/2/2023

The Caldwell Police Department abandoned ideas to unveil a new autism awareness patrol car at the Dec. 2 Treasure Valley Night Light Parade, just four days after first announcing it on Nov. 28.

“We want to respect the autism community and the symbols used to represent them,” said Char Jackson, spokesperson for the city of Caldwell, in a Friday news release. “Our role is to always remain neutral and unite the community, and the car was causing too much division.”

Jackson said the car featured puzzle pieces, which were a popular symbol for autism but have fallen out of favor over the years. She said the department now recognized the symbol was a tipping point for some people, with some thinking it didn’t represent them anymore.

“We just came to realize the car was causing a division in the autism community,” Jackson told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “That’s the last thing we want to do.”

Tiffany Klauba, executive director of the Autism Society of Idaho, said it’s a difficult subject and that there are camps on both sides: those who support the use of the puzzle piece and those who don’t.

The Autism Society of Idaho, which is based in Coeur D’Alene, provides statewide support for those in the community including help with referrals, estate planning, education, training for businesses and first responders and assistance with legal issues. Klauba said they are trying start more support groups in Southwest Idaho after the Treasure Valley Autism Society dissolved earlier this year.

Klauba said some members of the autism community find the puzzle piece symbol to be “extremely offensive” and believe it represents that something is missing and they need to be fixed. Others, however, see it as a way to show their uniqueness and how they fit in like a puzzle piece.

“It’s very hard to have conversations with individuals about this,” Klauba said.

According to a study published in Autism, a research journal associated with the United Kingdom’s National Autistic Society, the puzzle piece symbol can evoke negative associations. In a study of 400 participants, the researchers found participants associated puzzle pieces with incompleteness, imperfection and oddity.

“One criticism of the puzzle piece is its implication that autistic people are a problem requiring a solution,” according to an editorial published in the journal following the study. “A related point is that the puzzle piece implies that autistic people are somehow incomplete and need to be made whole.”

The journal changed its own logo from the puzzle piece to a design with circles after the study was published, according to news organization Disability Scoop.

Other symbols, such as a rainbow infinity symbol, have become more popular representations for the community, Klauba said. But people often get hung up on the symbol.

“That’s not what this is about. This is about autism,” she said. “The symbol is such a minor detail in the grand scheme of things.”

Learning lessons

After they made the car, Jackson said she spoke with Klauba and other groups aligned with the autism community to learn more and that the department’s decision came after these discussions.

“It was an educated decision that we came to,” Jackson said. “We will continue to work with groups like that.”

Klauba said the Caldwell Police Department received a heavy amount of backlash after driving the car around town and admitted they hadn’t done a lot of research on the puzzle symbol beforehand. She added that they’ve since reached out for training to better respond to situations involving the autism community.

“They did have the best intentions,” Klauba said. “They really were trying to bring attention to autism.”

Jackson said they haven’t decided yet if they will roll out a new, different car or do something else. But with April set as Autism Awareness Month, she said they are thinking about more things to do to support the community.

“(We’re) definitely not just tabling everything for good,” she said.

The car was set to join five other specialty cars in the Police Department’s fleet, according to the original news release. Those include cars for the College of Idaho, breast cancer awareness, domestic violence awareness, the Caldwell Night Rodeo and Caldwell High School.

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