A young autistic boy has found champions within the Lincolnton Police Department. Harrison Wilkens, 13, struggled while in elementary and middle school. He was very impatient and the academic structure didn’t fit him to the point he’d get frustrated, angry and aggressive. He’d sometimes get suspended for his behavior. At times, his parents thought Harrison would act out in order to get suspended so he could go home and get away from the classroom setting that was over-stimulating for him.
“Harrison had a tough year at Pumpkin Center,” Ashley Wilkens, Harrison’s mother, said. “Part of it is because he has special needs that the public school system has a challenge trying to meet.”
Harrison started this year at Asbury Academy and Wilkens admitted that in the beginning both she and her husband, Aaron, were nervous about sending Harrison to a school that is behavior-based. That’s all changed now.
“The school’s done wonders for my son,” she said. “We immediately found a family here – a family that cares about him. He knows every single person here at the school and considers them his friends. They really embraced him and that’s something that’s been difficult to find in past schools that he’s attended.”
As parents, Aaron Wilkens said, they grew up fearing the metro-behavioral schools, so they were hesitant to put a child with special needs in such a school.
“We had the opportunity to interview here and other schools,” he said. “I think Ashley and I both knew, perhaps within 20 or 30 minutes of touring the campus and talking with Dr. (Beth) Penley, the other staff members and the students, that this school was the right one for Harrison. He’s actually thrived here.”
When Harrison first arrived at Asbury, he developed a relationship with the school’s student resource officer, Rick Hensley, who is also a Lincolnton police officer. Hensley almost immediately become Harrison’s school mentor.
“He came up to me and was really infatuated with me and my uniform,” Hensley said. “He was curious about the equipment and how it worked. He told me that when he grew up, he wanted to be a K9 officer and I thought to myself, ‘that’s awesome.’ We hit it off after that.”
Every day, Harrison would ask Hensley who was working what rotations. It wasn’t long before he knew all of the police officers by name and who drove which number car. He even knew about the calls they went on and what was involved.
“I was completely amazed at his ability to retain knowledge, especially about policing,” Hensley said.
Harrison has been given multiple shirts with Lincolnton Police Department logos, which he wears almost every day.
“I love police officers because they help people, they like me and I like the dogs because they lick me and I get to play with them,” said Wilkens who has two cats but no dogs at home. “Officer Randy (Carroll) brings Nash to see me when I’m good in school.”
Harrison has always had a special connection with animals and they love him, his mother said.
K9 Nash is a highly trained police dog but he’s always been very easygoing around people and children. Not all K9s are that easygoing around people, Carroll said.
That Harrison, with his particular set of challenges, has such a great relationship with law enforcement is very beneficial, Hensley said.
“Out in society if he were to react badly to a police officer, the police officer may mistake his intention and it could cause a negative encounter between the two,” he said. “With him getting some experience face to face and realizing that we’re just human beings like he is, I think it has helped a lot. I would like to see more kids along those lines come into great contact with police and get to know us better. It helps us when we’re out in public or have to go to their houses because, let’s face it, some of them come from families that are in troubled situations and have a lot of domestic violence issues and things like that. Quite frequently, the kids are already terrified when we get there.”
Hensley and Carroll aren’t the only officers who have had contact with Harrison over the past school year. Lincolnton police officers have made weekly visits to provide an incentive for positive behavior for Harrison.
“Some of these incentives include a birthday lunch, touring the police station, as well as regular visits listening to the radio scanners,” principal Beth Bradley Penley said. “Our SRO officer, Rick Hensley, has been instrumental in coordinating these visits as well as serving as Harrison's on-site mentor through the Communities in Schools Program. Our goal here at Asbury is to meet every student where they are and to provide interventions to help them achieve their goals. Having amazing partners such as the Lincolnton Police Department make our job easier.”
Now that the school year is almost over, Ashley Wilkens said that they have projects for Harrison to work on over the summer and that he’ll be returning to Asbury for the upcoming school year.
“Unfortunately, there are not a lot of resources out there for children with autism,” she said. “People have become more accepting of it and as it grows as a public health concern, I think we’ll start to see more resources start to emerge. Parents need to really fight and scratch and look through like needles in a haystack to try to find what they need. Especially for children who have autism and other surrounding special needs as well, as Harrison does.”