A guest blog by The Arc of Northern Virginia, a Night of Too Many Stars Grantee

Every parent worries about their children’s safety, especially when the children are out in public.  But parents of young adults with autism can live with heightened levels of concern.  A casual excursion can easily turn into a traumatic situation.

Kymberly S. DeLoatche, the Project Manager of the Tech for Independent Living department at The Arc of Northern Virginia, kept seeing reports of interactions escalating into injury or incarceration years after mandatory trainings had been provided to law enforcement. She began to wonder why this is still happening.

One key reason is the diversity of physical and verbal responses can be so very different depending on the individual and what triggers them.  Add to that the different levels of experience or awareness among law enforcement officers and it’s not surprising that these traumatic interactions keep happening.  The missing component, Kymberly concluded, was training for individuals with autism.  

This is how the idea for SafetyMate was conceived.  Kymberly proposed creating an online safety app for mobile devices to coach individuals with autism on how to interact with law enforcement.  The app would be designed with the specific needs of individuals with autism in mind.  It would:

Use methods that people with autism respond to – visual photos, videos and online lessons and activities.

  • Provide lessons on how to help them manage their emotions and behaviors
  • Offer role playing videos of how a person should respond to the approach of a police officer that can be watched repeatedly.
  • Contain a warning message that they can open to explain their condition to an officer and an emergency contact that the officer can call or text.

SafetyMate would be based on technology already developed by Kymberly for the Arc, such as TravelMate (a virtual travel training) and EmployMate (a virtual job coach app), which have helped individuals with autism to learn and communicate more effectively.  These apps, developed with the software platform developer ONEder, are customizable to the functional needs of the individual through different formats such as virtual checklists, visual schedules, and social stories. They use real-life photos and videos to spark interest and ownership in learning.

With a grant from NEXT for AUTISM’s Night of Too Many Stars Grants Program, the Arc of Northern Virginia will spend a year to research and develop design ideas with key stakeholders- law enforcement, parents, individuals with autism, and professionals from the Organization for Autism Research.  Its intention is to offer SafetyMate to any individual or their network of support to prepare them for a lifetime of safe, public interactions. We look forward to the opportunity to research and innovate this important tool.

The NEXT for AUTISM Grants Program supports organizations that provide educational, employment, social and community-based services to improve outcomes for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families. It is funded by proceeds from the Night of Too Many Stars comedy benefit, which in 2017, was done in partnership with HBO.