DYFED-POWYS POLICE officers and staff are on track to make Milford Haven the first autism friendly community in Wales.
For the past three months the team has been out and about in the town raising awareness of autism, and helping shops and businesses learn how they can become more supportive and welcoming of autistic people.
The Neighbourhood Policing Team is leading the bid to become an autism friendly community, and so far a sergeant, seven PCSOs, two PCs and two volunteers have completed their online awareness training with ASDInfoWales.
On the force day of action alone, the team visited 16 businesses in the town to make them aware of the scheme and to encourage them to complete the online training. There are currently 30 businesses signed up and displaying their autism aware stickers, which are designed to promote awareness and understanding, and give autistic people and their carers the confidence to call in.
Schools, organisations and health centres are also working towards gaining the certification.
Milford Haven Sergeant Terri Harrison said the purpose of becoming an autism aware community was ‘about reducing hate crime, mate crime, and supporting the vulnerable’.
“We’re looking at the bigger picture of how autism awareness can improve the whole community,” she said.
“An extra five minutes spent in a shop or a business explaining what it’s about doesn’t take anything away from our role – if anything, it enhances it. We are getting to know parts of the community we didn’t know before.
“Protecting the vulnerable is one of the Chief Constable’s key messages. By making ourselves and others aware of autism and how it affects people we are protecting not just children, but vulnerable adults too.”
As well as helping to reduce crime, Sgt Harrison hopes becoming autism friendly will be beneficial for the whole of Milford Haven.
“There are so many families where there are people with autism that are looking for autism friendly destinations – somewhere they feel comfortable to bring their family for a holiday,” she said.
“With all the work that is going on here and everything we have planned for Milford Haven it will be perfect. We want to let everyone know that we are on board and we understand.”
PC Emma Smyth patrols Milford Haven, but when she’s not in work she cares for her four-year-old autistic daughter. She hopes the autism friendly initiative will eventually be rolled out across the force to support communities further afield, as well as police colleagues.
“It seems appropriate that we are a part of building the community that we look after,” she said.
“We hope to be the first autism informed community in Wales, and it would be nice if we could then become the first autism friendly force in Wales so we can support people across Dyfed-Powys, as well as officers with autism, and those who care for family members.
“There are so many people affected by autism, whether it’s the individual themselves, their parents or carers, and the first thing people say when I ask what they know about autism is ‘my nephew has it, or my friend’s child is autistic’ – it’s something more and more people are affected by.
“Other people we speak to don’t know anything about it at all, so it’s nice to bring it to the forefront. I think there is still a lot of work to be done, but there is more acceptance now. When I started in the police, autism would have been branded as a mental health issue – now there are people who think having autism is beneficial to them.”
Caring for an autistic child, PC Smyth knows full well the difficulties posed both at home and when out and about in the community. She said raising awareness of how autistic people might act or communicate would be of great benefit to parents and carers.
“I have days when I can’t cope,” she said.
“My day starts at 4.30am when my daughter wakes up, and I have to carry her downstairs – I might still be doing that when she’s a teenager, it’s not going to get any easier. I look after her until I come to work, and I’m not alone in caring for someone like this – it would be great if we could develop a network of people who are in the same boat and can support one another.
“She can have quite severe meltdowns and make noises that people don’t generally like. If I saw a sticker on the window of a shop or cafe that suggested that it’s an autism-friendly location I would have more faith that I would be able to cope in that situation, and wouldn’t have to worry.
“It’s really stressful for working parents with autistic children. It’s not just support for the person with autism that we need, but support for their families too.”
As part of the ASDinfoWales Can You See Me Campaign, people can choose to wear a wristband indicating that they are autistic. Alternatively, they can carry a card or download an app with a logo to show shop workers, café staff, police officers, or anyone else they might come in contact with to make them aware that they might have difficulties with communicating.
PCSO Paul Mayhew has taken the campaign to heart, and has dedicated time during every shift to make people aware of the scheme, as well as educating himself about autism.
He said: “If we break down our roles as police officers, not all of what we deal with is crime. Our role as a police service, rather than a force, is to protect the vulnerable in our communities, and you can’t get more protective than trying to make the whole community aware.
“It has really opened my eyes to how many people are living with autism in Milford Haven. One parent said to me that it was like her son was invisible, and that really brought the Can You See Me campaign to life.
“Nobody I have spoken to has questioned why we are doing it. They can see that we are looking out for the vulnerable people in our community. It’s like a Neighbourhood Watch scheme because if people can see that someone with a vulnerability is being taken advantage of they will let us know.
“Milford is such a community town, and it really shows in how people are taking this scheme on board. It has opened a new world to me.”
The team is now hoping to support ASDinfoWales to develop training specifically for the emergency services, and will encourage other officers to undertake this when the course has been developed.
Once all the targets have been completed, Milford Haven will officially become an Autism Friendly Community. There will be a launch event at the Torch Theatre on Thursday, July 6 to raise awareness and celebrate the campaign.