Fayette County

Police officers, people with autism meet up to get comfortable with each other

Officers Colin Meagher and Christopher Vaira played with Alexander Johnson, 6, and his sister Scarlett Johnson, 4. They were participating in an event to help police and people with autism get to know each other at the Village Branch of the Lexington Public Library on Saturday.
Officers Colin Meagher and Christopher Vaira played with Alexander Johnson, 6, and his sister Scarlett Johnson, 4. They were participating in an event to help police and people with autism get to know each other at the Village Branch of the Lexington Public Library on Saturday. University of Kentucky College of Education

Dianne Johnson has two young sons with autism spectrum disorder, and she wants them to learn that if there is ever an emergency, police officers are “safe” people to talk to.

She also wants police officers to learn more about interacting with people who have autism, who may not speak, respond to commands or understand dangerous situations.

“Avery’s a wanderer,” Johnson said. If he ever wanders off and is found by police “he won’t respond like a normal 2-year-old.”

So on Saturday, Johnson brought her family to a meet and greet event intended to help police and people with autism get to know each other.

“It’s good exposure for both of them,” she said.

Officer Kevin G. Jones, who attended the event at the Village Branch of the Lexington Public Library, met Johnson and Avery on Saturday.

“It’s good for our department to be able to reach out, and to learn about encounters that I might have,” he said. “They live in our area that I work, so there’s a good chance that I’m going to meet her son.”

The officers who attended on Saturday were offered information explaining some behaviors that people with autism might exhibit and tips on how to respond to them.

They played with toy cars and colored pictures with children and spent time talking with autistic adults and caregivers.

“Just being around you in your uniforms is an exposure, and it’s helpful to them in a way that’s not really obvious to outsiders,” University of Kentucky doctoral student Abbey Love, who has organized the meet and greets, told the officers.

Love said she began seeing parents of children with autism expressing concern on social media last summer, after the caregiver for a man with autism was shot by a police officer in Florida. The police union said that the officer was aiming at the autistic man, who police thought had a gun, when he accidentally shot the caregiver.

Love and Suzannah Williams, who has a fourth-grade son with autism, approached Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard about training for police officers on how to interact with autistic individuals.

Love provided a professional development session at a police joint roll call meeting, and the Autism Society of the Bluegrass has since sponsored the meet and greets in conjunction with the Lexington Police Department.

The next police meet and greet is 1 to 3 p.m. April 22 at the Tates Creek Branch of the Lexington Public Library.

People with autism are often prone to wander off, and they may be drawn to water, so officers were admonished to check water first when responding to a call about a missing person with autism.

Officers have also been given cards with symbols on them, since many people with autism are unable to communicate verbally.

Families in attendance at the meet and greets are offered resources such as stickers and bright red cards that identify them as having autism, as well as information on how to get a free medical id bracelet or shoe tag.

Love, an educational psychology student in the UK College of Education, said she was inspired to focus on teaching and autism because of her own family’s experience. She has an 18-year-old brother with autism.

Saturday’s meet and greet was the second one Sgt. Aundria Elam has attended.

At the last one, Elam said she met a man with autism who she might have assumed was on drugs if she had been responding to an emergency call.

“If I see him now, I know,” she said. And in an emergency, “him knowing me and being able to see me might be able to calm him down.

“It was a learning experience for me,” she said. “When we can make someone else feel safer just by introducing ourselves, why not?”

The next police meet and greet is 1 to 3 p.m. April 22 at the Tates Creek Branch of the Lexington Public Library. Find out more about autism, local events and the Autism Society of the Bluegrass at Asbg.org.

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