Twenty-three years ago, Teresa Becerra’s life was changed forever by the birth of her son, Robert Lee Becerra, who at 21 months was nonverbal. Doctors then diagnosed him as severely autistic and suffering from both encephalopathy (brain damage) and epilepsy.
Then she heard a tragic news story about an autistic boy killed by a police officer in Connecticut. Now she has made it her mission to properly train first responders.
Autism is a developmental disorder that impacts areas such as social interaction and communication skills. According to The United Way of Broward, one in every 59 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism. But if you ask Teresa, there is much more to her son than his autism.
Aside from his disabilities, Robert is an artist who has created several paintings. He is also a dancer and enjoys music and technology. For more than 14 years, he has helped his mother provide autism training. They have taught more than 17,000 first responders in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. They provide tools and techniques to identify and care for autistic people during emergencies. “His unpredictability makes the situations as real as possible,” said Teresa.
Robert and Teresa have a collection of badges, coins, shirts, awards and hundreds of letters from first responders praising their work. “When they come up to me after a training and say, ‘I’ve never had a training like this in my entire career,’ that means everything to me,” she said. “That for me is the paycheck.”
Robert and Teresa hope autism training can become mandatory for first responders on a national level.