ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Officers from all 16 police departments across Lehigh County, and Pennsylvania state troopers, stopped by Salisbury Township Police Department on a recent Friday afternoon to pick up some special blue envelopes.

The envelopes weren’t for sending mail, nor were they for police officers, either. They’re for members of the community with autism spectrum disorder.

The Blue Envelope program launched last month, a partnership between Lehigh Valley Health Network and the Lehigh County Chiefs of Police Association. It aims to improve interactions between people with autism spectrum disorder and police. Under the program, drivers with autism are given eponymous blue envelopes containing various relevant information about their condition to keep in their car so that they can provide them to officers during traffic stops, accidents or other situations.

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Every law enforcement agency in the county, including the Bethlehem Police Department, which operates in Lehigh and Northampton counties, as well as the state police, are participating in the program.

Autism spectrum disorder is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that affects about 1 in 36 children and more than 2% of adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Salisbury Township police Chief Donald Sabo said for most people, traffic stops can be stressful — but for people with autism, it can be even more so.

Some people with autism are completely or partially nonverbal; many also can have difficulties communicating, understanding or responding to questions or directions, and display physical signs of being uncomfortable. People with autism also are often sensitive to bright lights and sudden loud noises, make repetitive movements or fidget, have trouble maintaining eye contact and can become easily overwhelmed by too many sensory inputs.

At the same time, people with autism and other developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to interact with law enforcement officers than other people. And these interactions can have tragic consequences, with media outlets across the country documenting instances where people with autism, particularly those who are Black, were brutalized or killed by police.

Because of this, members of the autism community and their advocates, including police officers with children with autism, have pushed for efforts that reduce the chance people on the spectrum will be misunderstood by police and help police understand how to identify and talk to them.

A familial connection is why Sgt. Charles Whitehead with the Salisbury Township Police Department decided to pitch the program to his department after he heard about it.

“A relative of mine is on the autism spectrum, he drives regularly. When I first heard about this program, it was something I’d never thought about before,” Whitehead said. “One time at a family function, I brought this up and his mother said one of her main concerns is if he would ever get stopped how he would react and I explain this and they thought it was a great idea.”

The first Blue Envelope program was started in Connecticut under a state law that went into effect in 2020. Since then, Massachusetts and Arizona have adopted laws establishing their own version of the program, as have individual municipalities across the country, including nearby Montgomery County. Whitehead said he heard about the program when he read a news article about police in Warren County, N.J. implementing the program.

“I reached out to Chief Scott Robb of Pohatcong Township and he provided me all the literature that they had,” Whitehead said.

Lehigh County’s variation of the program will function identically to those implemented elsewhere. Drivers who participate in the program are instructed to keep the blue envelope in their car and during interactions with law enforcement to inform the officer they have a blue envelope, retrieve it and give it to the officer.

The front of the envelope tells officers whether the person is verbal or nonverbal, and the back has tips for police to help their interaction with the driver go as smoothly as possible. Inside of the envelope is a sheet, available in both English and Spanish, that provides contact information for people who can provide medical information or assistance in interacting with the driver if necessary. This sheet also provides further explanation to officers about behaviors people with autism can exhibit that police may interpret as suspicious, defiant or aggressive.

It is recommended that drivers in the program keep their registration and insurance information in the blue envelope along with the information sheet.

Though the program originally was envisioned and as of now has only been implemented for people with autism, Ryan Hay, administrator of public safety for LVHN, said they are looking to see how it could be expanded to help other drivers who may struggle when communicating with police such as people who are deaf, hearing impaired or have anxiety disorders.

“We work very closely with our law enforcement partners, supporting them in all our communities,” Hay said.

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