A University of Kentucky student is teaming with local police to provide education about interacting with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Abbey Love is an educational psychology doctoral student in the UK College of Education Department of Educational, Counseling, and School Psychology. With a research focus on teaching and ASD, Love is involved with central Kentucky autism groups such as the Autism Society of the Bluegrass (ASBG). She noticed parents sharing fears online about what could happen to loved ones if police misinterpreted the behavior of someone with autism. With her background in education and research, and a passion for helping individuals with autism, Love reacted by developing an education-based plan.
She and Suzannah Williams, an advocate and mother of a child with autism, met with Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard and Commander Mike Wright to relay their plan.
“We told them we had a plan in place if they were willing to work with us,” Love said. “They were awesome and jumped right on board.”
Soon, she was delivering professional development to Lexington officers, as well as organizing events designed for police and individuals with autism to interact.
Love’s younger brother has autism and much of her passion is fueled by what her family has experienced.
“ASD is a unique disability because it’s different with every single person,” she said. “There are common characteristics, but working with individuals with autism is about working with that particular person. It takes a lot of creativity and patience.”
Common characteristics for individuals with autism include challenges with social exchanges and communication. Specific to incidents with the police, individuals also have a tendency to wander, calling for a need for police to help the individual to safety.
“Individuals with ASD need repetition when learning a new skill,” Love said. “Talking to a police officer is not something they are used to doing. We are hosting several meet and greets so families can come repeatedly. We have found that the families are getting a chance to talk to police about things they are scared of or worried about. They are using the opportunity in more ways than we originally imaged, which is a great outcome.”
The events also provide a chance to distribute materials to families such as safety stickers for cars and houses and information about resources for free medical alert tags for individuals with autism, similar to identification used for diabetes. Additionally, the group has armed 350 police cars in Lexington with large visual support cards that can aid in communication by prompting individuals to point to icons, rather than verbalize their needs.
“This initiative has been very rewarding to be involved with, both professionally and personally,” Commander Wright said. “The families have been great and our officers have been very appreciative of the opportunity to meet with them in a relaxed setting.”
Love said providing opportunities for individuals with autism to interact with police is just as important as training the officers. Love discovered her passion for working with individuals with autism while teaching in Australia. She had gone abroad to work after completing her undergraduate studies in elementary and special education at Eastern Kentucky University. She returned to Kentucky to complete her master’s degree at the UK College of Education, and is on the path to completing a doctorate. In addition to community advocacy, she enjoys working in schools to support teachers who work with kids with disabilities, as well as working with students studying to become teachers.
Her doctoral work focuses on analyzing how the beliefs that general education teachers have about their capabilities in working wth students with ASD impacts their behavior, such as their willingness and eagerness to help students.
For more information about the UK College of Education Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology, click here.