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07/13/2023 08:11 AM

Ashley McClain: Linking Communities with Autism Safety

As founder of LINKED-Autism Safety Project, North Branford mom Ashley McClain is linking first responder emergency preparedness with the important family issue of safe and effective assistance to loved ones on the Autism spectrum. Photo Courtesy Ashley McClain.
The McClain family includes Ashley and her husband, Josh, and their children, Colton, 6 and Leigha, 7. Photo Courtesy Ashley McClain
In June, 2023, through a community partnership with Ashley McClain, North Branford Police Department notified the community that the new LINKED-Autism Safety Project was up and running. Photo Courtesy North Branford Police Department

North Branford Mom Founds LINKED-Autism Safety Project

In her North Branford hometown and, she hopes, more communities to come, Ashley McClain is linking first responder emergency preparedness with the important family issue of safe and effective assistance to loved ones on the Autism spectrum.

Ashley is the founder of LINKED-Autism Safety project. Born in North Branford, the program is now on track to grow in other communities and become a non-profit organization.

Establishing LINKED-Autism Safety Project

Ashley’s son, Colton, 6, is on the autism spectrum. Knowing that wandering, or elopement, can be a common issue for children who have autism spectrum disorder, Ashley reached out to North Branford Police Department (NBPD) in January. She wanted to know if there was a way to submit a notification record of Colton’s diagnosis, so municipal first responders would be aware of his needs in the event of an emergency.

“Although we’ve never really had any concerns of him wandering or eloping, I always had that worry if, God forbid, something did happen,” says Ashley. “Within the last year, my son has become fully verbal, but prior to that, he was not verbal at all. So if something happened to my husband or I, although I have an older daughter, I’m not sure how my son would react in an emergency situation.”

Ashley and her husband, Josh, have two children, Colton and Leigha, age 7.

As an “autism mama,” Ashley’s first thought was to at least have Colton’s name on file with the municipality’s emergency responders. As Ashley later wrote in her blog at LINKED-The Autism Helper, “ would help the first responders, and it would help my son. I had seen and heard of other programs throughout the country and hoped that our town had something similar. Sadly, they did not. However, our police department was open, willing to learn and develop something. After months of research, collaboration with my son’s providers, and ongoing communication with the police department, LINKED-Autism Safety Project was born!”

From the point of her first call to NBPD, LINKED-Autism Safety Project was launched in less than six months. Ashley says she has NBPD to thank for its amazing response.

“They were extremely receptive to listening to me and understanding autism a little bit more and working to help develop something,” says Ashley. “I’m so appreciative to the North Branford Police Department for their willingness to listen, understand, and want to learn about our community.”

In addition, “...they gave me a lot of room to create something,” says Ashley. “I did a lot of research around the country with different programs to see, as a mom, what I thought would work. The providers I worked with are my son’s providers, and they helped make the Social Stories and the planning forms. So it wasn’t just mom; it was professional input.”

As the result of forming this unique community partnership with Ashley, in June, NBPD proudly announced its new LINKED-Autism Safety Project was up and running.

“North Branford has been phenomenal, and they fully funded everything for our program. I could not be more appreciative of that,” Ashley says.

What is LINKED-Autism Safety Project?

To join the safety project, North Branford autism community caregivers can register online at The confidential information is then directed to NBPD’s program coordinator and used only in an emergency to provide North Branford first responders with important individualized information about the person with autism, allowing the responder to create a pre-arrival plan.

The free program also provides each registered family with tips and guidance as part of a Family Emergency Planning Folder.

During an emergency response, all officers are equipped with a sensory pack that’s in every patrol car. The unique pack includes sensory products from noise-canceling headphones to fidget spinners, a whiteboard, a “stretch sack,” and an Emergency Picture Exchange Communication System, among other professionally recommended and approved items. The picture exchange system, also used by North Branford’s school system, can facilitate non-verbal dialogue between a child and emergency responders. The kit also includes a personalized learning tool (text and illustration) supporting safe and meaningful information exchanges.

Ashley hopes the program will spill over from helping to inform first responders to helping to make community members more aware that they may encounter someone on the autism spectrum.

“We want to help the general public just to be more understanding and willing to listen and not judge right away,” says Ashley. “That can go for anything, not just the autism community. Everyone’s got a story. Be willing to listen to it.”

Stepping Up to Make a Difference

Following her son’s diagnosis, working with speech and occupational therapy, Colton has made great strides in the recent year. He’s gone from non-verbal/limited speech to verbal communication and has reached many other milestones.

Knowing what it’s like to navigate life in the autism community, Ashley shares a great deal of insight, updates, and information at LINKED- Autism Safety Project on Facebook and Instagram and at the program’s website

“Initially, I was a little worried about putting our family’s story out there because it is Colton’s story to tell. But as a mom going through this, I know the support that I needed initially when my son was diagnosed, and it wasn’t there,” she says.

A lot of people wrestle with shame or are afraid to talk publicly about their experiences, she adds.

“I was in those same shoes, too. But now I’m at the point where I have a whole program, and I speak freely about it, and it’s very often I’m getting a call from a family member or friend who has a loved one they think may be on the spectrum, or just were diagnosed, and they don’t know where to turn or what to do,” says Ashley.

As Ashley points out, everyone’s autism spectrum situation—from diagnosis to trials and triumphs—is different.

“There’s a saying, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,’” she says.

But being available as a sounding board can help. Ashley is happy to be that sounding board.

“I have a degree in psychology, but I am by no means a professional. I just live this every day,” she says. “It’s just to have that person that someone can reach out to and to be there so we can support one another.”

Ashley’s also created a North Branford/Northford special needs Facebook page to further assist other moms in other ways.

“It’s for moms in our community who are going through something; it doesn’t have to be autism. Because a lot of our struggles are similar,” says Ashley.

The Future

As an independent college advisor, Ashley’s job is working with students in the process of college planning, including those with learning disabilities and neurodiversity. She’s also coach of the University of New Haven Dance Team.

While she’s a busy professional and mom, Ashley also prioritizes the work she does to assist the autism community. In addition to helping LINKED-Autism Safety Project spread to other communities, Ashley and Josh are working toward establishing the organization as a non-profit.

She’s met with other police departments, as well as therapeutic centers, to share the news of the program; and invites municipalities and others to contact her to learn more.

“We do have another town in the state that is going to be implementing the registration system as well as the forms that we use, and I recently had a phone call with a Kentucky autism training center to learn a little bit more about what we’re doing. So there has been a lot of interest, and it’s actually now sparked my husband and I to create a non-profit that will help support funding around it,” says Ashley.

An umbrella organization will be working with the McClains to continue programming as they work toward reaching non-profit status. The non-profit could also eventually grow to support scholarships for individuals in the local community and the autism community.

Ashley can also see the potential of the program becoming a framework to assist other special needs communities, such as the deaf or those living with Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s a support system that can help everybody to be able to work together better,” says Ashley.

For now, however, the focus is on supporting the growth of this important program to assist the autism community, first responders, and communities in general.

“It’s a service that’s needed, and if we could potentially fund it for state police departments or communities that need it, we want to be able to support that in any way we can,” says Ashley.