parent opinion

"As a mum of three boys on the spectrum, here is why autism training for police is so crucial."

For Kathrine Peereboom, life is "quite hectic". 

As a mother of three autistic nonverbal boys under the age of ten, Kathrine and her husband's day starts at 4:30am. That's if the family has been able to sleep through the night. 

"Even though our eldest is eight, it very much feels like we still have newborns at times," Kathrine shares with Mamamia

But even with an incredibly busy life, looking after and having quality experiences with her three boys, Kathrine is giving up her time to provide police with autism training for free. 

Why you may ask?

To ensure that no person on the spectrum is ever put in a position where their dignity or safety is compromised by a first responder or service provider due to potential lack of awareness or ignorance.

Watch: #Understandmore: What life is like with autism. Post continues below.


Video via UK Charity Autistica.

With first-hand experience, Kathrine was apprehensive about what life would be like for her three boys when they grew up. What would it be like without mum and dad by their side to protect them?

Originally from Sydney, Kathrine's boys were on 15 different waitlists for schools and therapists for over two years. The wait was challenging for the family, considering it was a critical development time in their young lives for intervention. So, the family moved to the Gold Coast, found incredible schools and therapy options. 

But there were still obstacles to face.

"There are some wonderful advocates in the community who make sure that autism is understood. But we've still got a long, long way to go," Kathrine notes.

"Something as simple as taking my son to the hairdresser can be hard. The way the community receives him will either leave me bawling my eyes out in the car or if I'm feeling feisty that day, I'll have to educate the people around us that he can't control the way he behaves and they need to be a bit tolerant."

Kathrine's three boys. Image: Supplied. Ultimately, there was an educational gap between the autistic community and those offering critical services: one example being the police force. 

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So in 2019, Kathrine founded Spectrum Support and began offering her time to teach police how to respond with members of the public who are autistic, training with the involvement of the autism community.

Starting with the New South Wales Police, which has a strong force of over 17,000, it was easy to see just how crucial this sort of training was.

"The Q&A usually goes for just as long as the training session. I've had people reach out to me and say: 'Thank you Kat. If I had not been exposed to your training, I would have handled this particular situation very differently. I think you may have just saved a life'."

And since 2020, Kathrine has been training Queensland Police too. 

As for what the training specifically involves, it covers case studies, first-hand perspectives, behaviours, how to react and more. Specific topics include: What is autism? What are the types of behaviours that you could see in the field? What is stimming? What is rocking? What is a meltdown? What is echolalia? How should you engage with someone who is nonverbal?

"Echolalia, the repeating of words, is an important one," Kathrine notes. "If you were an officer and you suspect somebody of a crime, you would ask them 'what is your name?' If the person was then to repeat 'what is your name? what is your name?' that officer could potentially take it as a sign of disrespect and a permission to use force, when really that person may be scared, confused or have a condition."

Kathrine during a training session. Image: Supplied. Sadly, examples like this are not just hypothetical. 

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A 32-year-old Queensland man with autism named *Liam sometimes joins Kathrine in her training seminars and shares his traumatic experience with the police in a bid to ensure something similar never happens again.

Liam has a wonderful job driving a vehicle, he has a loving partner and two kids. He's an active member of society, says Kathrine. But while driving his vehicle, he was pulled over for a line-up RBT. There were three other cars in front of him.

By the time Liam was next to be breathalysed, his anxiety was at an all-time high due to the wait and uncertainty. 

Listen to this episode of The Quicky on adult autism. Post continues after podcast.


He wound down his window and the officer said, 'mate, have you had anything to drink tonight?' Liam essentially became a selective mute. He felt unable to speak. His eyes were diverted, unable to give the officer any sort of eye contact. And he began rocking backward and forwards in his seat.

The officer immediately suspected Liam's behaviour was to do with drug or alcohol intoxication, so the officer and his colleagues pulled Liam out of the vehicle, onto the ground, cuffed him and threw him in the paddy wagon. 

"Liam was left completely traumatised. His relationship with law enforcement from then on was in tatters. Sometimes he feels comfortable to speak, but sometimes it's too much for him and he doesn't want to relive the trauma," Kathrine said to Mamamia.

Kathrine. Image: Supplied.

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Every day, police officers will encounter a multitude of people in emergency situations. And just as each emergency situation differs from the next, so does the individual involved - "especially when it comes to people on the spectrum," Kathrine adds.

"There's a common saying in our community: 'If you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person.' Whilst there's a shared diagnosis, every single person on the spectrum is uniquely different in the way they present their autistic traits."

Senior Sergeant Gregory Giles from Queensland Police had also seen a need for front-line officers to have a better skill set and knowledge around not only mental health, but neurodiversity too. 

In a statement he said: "This training is the first of its kind to be delivered in Queensland and provides participants with the skill, knowledge and attitude to improve officers' performance and provide a better service to the community."

In the past two decades, our country has seen a rise in autism statistics, most likely due to a better understanding of what it looks like and diagnosing ability. According to Autism Spectrum Australia, approximately one in 70 Aussies are on the autism spectrum.

Kathrine's three boys. Image: Supplied. After winning the NSW Police Commissioner's Safety Initiative Award in 2019, Kathrine hasn't slowed down. 

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And even though she is such a busy woman, the decision to train others was simple for Kathrine.

"There's not even a question as to whether I should dedicate my time to this. As a mother of three autistic boys, I want my sons to grow up in a world where they are safe, understood and supported," Kathrine shares.

"It's important to me: it's my life, it's my children, and it's a benefit of the greater community. It makes me so proud to see the police officers there who are listening and wanting to learn. And I just hold my boys right in my heart while I'm presenting."

To see more of the work that Spectrum Support does, visit their website here. 

*Liam's name has been changed for privacy reasons. 

The labelling terms in this article have been declared and approved by Kathrine. 

For support and information about autism, you can contact Autism Connect on 1300 308 699

Feature Image: Instagram/ @spectrumsupport.