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A personal drive for change

19 October 2020 at 8:12 am
Maggie Coggan
Kathrine Peereboom is the founder of Spectrum Support, an organisation dedicated to empowering people with autism through safety and awareness programs. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 19 October 2020 at 8:12 am


A personal drive for change
19 October 2020 at 8:12 am

Kathrine Peereboom is the founder of Spectrum Support, an organisation dedicated to empowering people with autism through safety and awareness programs. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

As the mother of three young boys with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Peereboom is well aware of the challenges facing carers, parents and people with ASD due to a lack of awareness and education about the disorder.

Frustration and a fear of something bad happening to her children led her to researching the relationship between first responders and the autistic community. She quickly realised there was a huge educational gap around how an person with autism should be treated in an emergency situation.  

She founded Spectrum Support in 2017. The charity runs programs educating the public and emergency services on how to support and treat people with autism, as well as an internationally recognised initiative distributing wristbands to people with ASD, helping identify any critical identity or assistance information. 

The organisation’s aim is to one day become a primary resource in Australia for support or information on ASD. 

For her efforts, Peereboom won the gold Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in Asia, Australia or New Zealand, and was announced as a finalist in the Gold Coast woman of the year in 2020. 

In this week’s Changemaker she discusses what inspires her mission for change, setting boundaries, and the joy of an unexpected career path. 

How did Spectrum Support come about? 

So I have three lovely little boys aged seven, six and five who are all diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. They’re regarded as a level three, which is probably the most severe on the spectrum. And they also have a range of comorbidities that cause quite a few challenges in our daily life. 

My boys are nonverbal, which means that they have no way of talking to communicate their needs. And it became very apparent to me that one day I wouldn’t be there to protect them in a public setting. That fear of something untoward happening to them is actually what drove me to research the relationship between first responders and the autistic community. And it became very apparent very quickly that there was a huge educational gap between them and that it needed to be fixed immediately. 

It started out in my kitchen a couple of years back, and we are now partnered with New South Wales Police, where our training is being rolled out to 17,000 NSW police officers. It’s about to go into the cadet program, and had a global pandemic not affected us, we would have commenced our national rollout. Here in Queensland, our rollout should begin hopefully in the next couple of months.

What kind of difference is your program making to people with autism?

I think it’s definitely two-fold. Front line officers that have already received training have called and emailed thanking us, because in the field they now understand how to treat someone with autism, and it has saved lives. It means that somebody isn’t tasered, or put down on the floor or handcuffed and thrown in the back of a paddy wagon within the space of 60 seconds.

We also provide training for officers so they can interview a person with ASD who is a victim of sexual assault, domestic violence, or bullying. So the training, from the perspective of law enforcement, has equipped them to handle circumstances [to] de-escalate the situation. 

And it’s proven positive from the autistic community’s point of view – it has been really incredibly welcomed. As well as the training program we have created a global first safety symbol, in the form of a discreet bracelet that a person with ASD can wear.

It allows them to feel safe that if they were pulled over by law enforcement and became so overwhelmed that they were unable to communicate, they’ve got this emergency symbol which can express who they are, and then the [police] training kicks in. 

This is a very personal cause for you. Do you ever feel like you need to step back so you don’t burn out?

Look, I live and breathe autism, and there are absolutely times where, like any person living and breathing something, you need to take a step back and you need some space. You need to have that to then provide you clarity to move forward with the next phase. So there is a balance that is absolutely required. COVID-19 has made that a little harder because we were working from home for a period, so there wasn’t really an opportunity to come home and place it aside. 

But I think at the moment, it’s such an incredibly exciting time for our organisation. We’ve done all of the really hard work. Our first responder training program has just been publicly announced with New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller. So we’re really at the beginning phases of rolling this out, which is so exciting.

And did you think that you would be doing this 10 years ago?

Absolutely not. I had no clue that this would be my calling in life. And it truly is. I was a sales and marketing director for a very large national organisation, with 100 employees at the time. I’m also a performer, so I sing. And I just thought that I would be, you know, singing here and working in my corporate life and living a good life. I never thought that this would be my ticket to victory. But I tell you, when you find your purpose in life, you don’t tire of it. And that’s where I am now, which is really what drives me, and it’s so exciting.

What’s something that you’re most proud of since starting Spectrum Support?

The fact that it’s been so widely accepted by the community and there was really a need for it. When you put your heart and soul into something behind the scenes and then you take it to the market, you never know how it’s going to be received. And the thousands and thousands of emails that I’ve had and people reaching out to me saying, can you please train this police officer? Could you please help at my school? It really has highlighted the fact that we’re doing something really special, and we’re doing something that is helping people. That’s all I can ask for.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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