New coalition seeks to unite special needs, public safety communities

Johnston Sun Rise ·

The new nonprofit group Public Safety Special Needs Coalition is looking to foster connections between children with developmental disabilities and first responders, and there’s plenty of fun to spare.

Alicia Ead, senior family support specialist at The Autism Project, said “crisis situations” involving special needs students and public safety officials can be difficult. That’s where PSSNC comes in, holding events where first responders and children with autism and other developmental disabilities can get together and enjoy themselves. According to Ead, individuals with special needs are seven times more likely to have interactions with law enforcement and first responders.

“A lot of times [first responders] don’t necessarily know that it’s autism,” Ead said. “They’re … showing up because the kid is having a meltdown, so now the kid’s already having a rough time and you’re going to have a stranger come and try to talk to them.”

The next example of this growing relationship will take place Saturday, Feb. 8, from 10 a.m. to noon at CW Lanes & Games at 622 George Washington Highway in Lincoln. The event is free, but registration is required. Those interested can call Ead at 785-2666, ext. 4, or email PSSNCRI@gmail.com.

Ead said that, just over the past week, more than 20 families have signed up to hit the lanes.

“It’s just going to be fun, high-fives, they’re going to be bowling and it’s not just for the kids, it’s for the families,” Ead said. “A lot of times families are very hesitant to reach out to the first responders, so again we want to build those connections with those families, too, so if they’re ever needed, if there’s a crisis situation, the kid feels comfortable, the parent feels comfortable.”

The organization rose out a sensory friendly safety day, held at the Albion Fire Department in Lincoln over the summer. Chuck Karboski, who is now executive director at PSSNC, is an Autism and Law Enforcement Coalition, or ALEC, trainer and has a daughter on the autism spectrum. Ead, who has a son on the autism spectrum as well, suggested holding a touch-a-truck event where children with developmental disabilities can have fun without worrying about the horns and sirens they may not like.

“Normally touch-a-truck events, kids can’t handle the loud noise, the horns, the sirens, so it was siren- and noise-free. Again, fun,” Ead said. “A lot of volunteers came out. Kids got to go on the trucks. Over 50 families attended, including families from Coventry that drove to Lincoln. Honestly, the guys were hooked. I said, ‘We can just do this event once a year and call it a day.’ They’re like, ‘No. We really want to do more.’ They’ve seen the need.”

Ead referenced one 10-year-old girl in particular, who was so initially apprehensive that she didn’t want to enter the fire station. Once the event was over, though, the girl didn’t want to leave.

The response was overwhelmingly positive on both sides, and a coalition was born.

“They’ve seen that transition, so I think the fact that they’ve seen the need, they were more than willing to continue. So we decided to make this work,” Ead said. “We needed nonprofit status, so we applied. Our plan is to do more community events like this … [and] provide families with safety kits.”

Ead said that volunteers who take part in PSSNC events must have had training in autism, so that they can help educate first responders as to what they may see when they encounter a child having a hard time.

That way, she said, they can apply that knowledge and “have a better understanding of what to do.”

“In the event there’s some kind of crisis, instead of kids running from the police, now they’ll be more willing to come to the police because they already have learned, ‘This is somebody within my community,’” Ead said.

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