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Police agencies in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace selling patches to promote autism awareness in April

Harford County’s three municipal police departments have created autism awareness shoulders patches that they are selling in April to raise money for Pathfinders for Autism. April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance month.

Aberdeen Police, Bel Air Police and Havre de Grace Police each created a patch, similar to ones police officers in those municipalities wear on their uniform sleeves, but featuring the multicolored puzzle pieces that have become a symbol of autism awareness. The Autism Society of America, which created the puzzle piece ribbon in 1999, has stated that “the puzzle piece pattern reflects the complexity of the autism spectrum. The different colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition.”

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The patches, which can be purchased for $5 in person or $6 online, are available at any of the three participating police department’s headquarters, or by contacting Sgt. Robert Tice of the Aberdeen Police Department via email at rtice@aberdeenmd.gov.

The Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace police departments have created autism awareness shoulders patches that they are selling in April to raise money for Pathfinders for Autism.
The Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace police departments have created autism awareness shoulders patches that they are selling in April to raise money for Pathfinders for Autism. (Courtesy photo)

All proceeds from the patch sales benefit Pathfinders for Autism, a nonprofit organization based in Baltimore County that works to support and improve the lives of individuals affected by autism through programming and providing resources, training, information and activities at no charge, according to its website.

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Tice, the father of two sons with autism, organized a training from Pathfinders for Autism for Aberdeen’s police officers to help quickly recognize the signs of autism and respond effectively.

“A lot of times, an officer gets the call and very rarely do we get information that [a subject] could have autism or have a sensory disorder,” he said. “It’s all on the officer to observe, assist by talking to the subject and making a determination after coming in contact. That’s why this training is so important.”

When a person with autism comes in contact with law enforcement, “some of their behaviors could be misinterpreted as either noncompliance or belligerence when in fact it may be something completely different,” said Shelly McLaughlin, who manages the first responder training program for Pathfinders.

“No eye contact, minimal language, things like that, eloping, running away; for an officer that sees that in almost everyday scenario that’s a bad thing,” Tice said, “but when you put it all together, it could be someone on the spectrum. We want to be helping them the best way that we can.”

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Tice first connected with Pathfinders about six years ago during a training put on by the Havre de Grace Police Department. At the time, his 2-year-old was having speech delays, so he had reached out to one of the instructors and a short time after that his son was diagnosed with autism.

“I was blessed to have the training, because it led to some awareness and knowledge that eventually helped my family,” Tice said.

Over the past year, Tice learned about the national Autism Patch Challenge. Det. Christopher Greco of the New Rochelle Police Department in New York, the father of a nonverbal child with autism, created the challenge in 2017 to promote awareness and acceptance by having agencies make a custom autism awareness first responder patch to attach to uniforms or emergency vehicles within their community.

Police departments are encouraged to fundraise for local autism charities by selling the patches, much like what the Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace departments are doing. Tice worked with the three municipal law enforcements agencies and the Harford County Municipal Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 128 to create the autism awareness and acceptance patches.

Once a police department accepts the Autism Patch Challenge, they are asked to pay it forward by challenging three other police jurisdictions. More than 350 police departments have accepted the challenge.

“It spread like wildfire,” Tice said he learned. Some states, like Massachusetts, have more than 90 agencies participating this year, he said.

While it hasn’t caught on in Maryland just yet — only 12 departments here have participated to date — Tice is making it his personal mission to change that.

“Every year, I’m going to try to contact a different county and get them on board,” he said.

McLaughlin said Pathfinders learned about the patches from Tice, and the three Harford agencies are the first to partner with the nonprofit to raise money through selling patches. Like Tice, she hopes those efforts expand in the future.

Tice also hopes members of the department can actually wear the patches on their uniforms next April; the logistics didn’t work out this year, he said.

Following the training, Aberdeen Police supervisors are also now equipped with autism sensory kits to utilize in the field to help ease some of the overwhelming stimulation that someone with a developmental disability might be fell during an encounter with police. The kits include items like a weighted blanket, sunglasses, noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys and a stress ball, said Tice, who put together the kits.

“These are great things for somebody to help them calm down if they’re having a sensory overload moment when they’re in distress,” he said. The kits also include a dry erase board, which he said can be helpful if police encounter someone who is nonverbal.

Pathfinders was founded in 2000 by Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer B.J. Surhoff and his wife Polly, who have a son with autism, and is now the largest autism resource center in the state, McLaughlin said. The agency has been teaching classes to law enforcement agencies since 2012, and working with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office since 2014. The training with Aberdeen police in March was the first for that agency.

While her focus is on the first responder training program, McLaughlin said Pathfinders has staff that focuses on autism training for hospitals, libraries, schools, restaurants and pretty much every other kind of industry. She encourages families and businesses to reach out to talk about what the nonprofit can offer.

“And everything we do is free of charge,” she said, “so that’s why we are very appreciative police departments and others are raising awareness and fundraising for us.”

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