"Officer Friendly Day" sparks conversation and fun during Autism Acceptance Month

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Trooper Horton reads a story to families on blankets and chairs outside of White Building on the lawn
Trooper Horton reads “Let’s Meet a Police Officer” to Officer Friendly Day attendees.

On April 23, the Department of Public Safety and Education Department at the University of Michigan-Flint collaborated to host "Officer Friendly Day," a family-friendly event that celebrated autism acceptance month. Individuals of all ages on the spectrum and their families could engage with law enforcement officers while enjoying fun activities. 

The event had multiple benefits: autistic individuals could become familiar with law enforcement, and law enforcement officers could become more familiar with those on the spectrum. 

Officer John Neph shows a child a Mott Community College white police vehicle
Mott Community College Police Officer John Neph invites a child to look inside an emergency vehicle.

UM-Flint DPS officers, the Michigan State Police, City of Flint Police Department, Grand Blanc Police Department, Mott Community College Department of Public Safety, Easterseals, and AmeriCorps were all in attendance to engage with these individuals. 

According to Ray Hall, director of public safety at UM-Flint, this event is a step for police officers to become allies with those on the spectrum. It is also a continuation of Associate Professors of Education Christine Kenney and Melissa Sreckovic's ASD professional training sessions with law enforcement officers. 

"As officers, we've already received knowledge about autism. But with Officer Friendly Day, we could meet individuals that self-identify or have been identified by their families as being autistic," Hall said. "This speaks to the role of law enforcement in a community. In order to provide a quality service that the community members deserve, you have to understand individual needs in communities. This is one aspect of getting to accomplish that." 

In addition to candid conversations about safety and disclosure, families could also take part in fun activities. Officers read children's stories aloud to groups. Those on the spectrum could get an inside look at an emergency vehicle. UM-Flint student volunteers played blocks, blew bubbles, held matchbox car races, and led dance parties with the participants. 

Anna Theriault plays bubbles with child and her parents on the White Building Lawn during officer friendly day.
Elementary Education Major Anna Theriault ran the "bubble station." 

Elementary Education major and volunteer Anna Theriault says that volunteering at the event will broaden her perspective once she starts teaching. 

"This event allowed me to work with different types of students and interact with them," Theriault said. "I've enjoyed seeing everyone do activities and just be happy." 

The event also prioritized the needs of community members as a judgment-free atmosphere. Organizers accommodated individual needs and prepared attendees before the event. Kenney and Sreckovic filmed an introductory, walk-through video sent to families to make attendees more comfortable. 

The event was intentionally designed for those on the spectrum-even down to the bags handed out to attendees. 

"The event was as fun as it was informative," Sreckovic said. "In the bags that everyone received, there is a social story, which is often how we teach autistic individuals about certain situations. Everyone that came to the event also got a bag with disclosure cards that someone on the spectrum might carry with them." 

Officer Friendly Day event organizers.

In a Facebook comment, attendee Angela Wang, who has a 7-year-old autistic son, says that her child's impression of police enforcement completely changed after attending the event. 

"Today my son talked to a few officers and told me: 'Officers are good. Not scary,'" Wang said. 

The organizers hope the event sparks other efforts around the state and the country. 

See more photos of the event below:

Katelyn Stuck is a Marketing & Media Assistant with the Office of Marketing & Communications. She is a Communication Studies major.