In the comfort zone

AMANDA SABGA/Staff photo Chris Torres, 19, right, and Peter Ruiz, 20, students at The School for Exceptional Studies, sit in a Humvee as the Lawrence Police Department hosts its third Autism Awareness Day at the police station. 4/2/19

LAWRENCE — Lawrence police kicked off Autism Awareness Month by "lighting it up blue" with hundreds of visitors at the Lowell Street station.

An estimated 300 people, including students from Lawrence Public Schools and Melmark New England school in Andover, attended the Autism Awareness Day on Tuesday.

Blue is the globally recognized color for Autism Awareness Month, which is April. 

Police said this year's open house was the most successful to date as they were also joined by Lawrence firefighters who attended and brought a truck. 

A front-end loader was also parked at the event, courtesy of the Department of Public Works. 

"For us, it's all about awareness," said police Chief Roy Vasque. "Our goal is to make people feel comfortable with people in uniform so they'll approach us if they need help."

Police Sgt. Joseph Beaulieu, whose son Joseph, 13, is autistic, was instrumental in getting the annual open house off the ground three years ago. His son attends Melmark in Andover. 

"It obviously means a lot to me because of Joseph," said Beaulieu, commending Sgt. Sandy Picard's longtime support with the event. 

Some children don't have any interaction with police officers or know what the uniform stands for, he explained.

"Every kid enjoyed themself and every kid felt comfortable," Beaulieu said after Tuesday's event. 

As they have in the past, Lawrence police parked their specially painted, light-blue Autism Awareness cruiser in front of the station. 

Visitors also got to check out two SWAT team vehicles, a department motorcycle and, of course, the firetruck.  

Vasque also gave some kids rides around the block in his chief's vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe, with the blue lights flashing, he said. 

Internationally on April 2 people recognize Autism Awareness Day by wearing blue clothing or putting up blue lights at their homes and businesses.

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.

Research has revealed that there is not one autism, but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences, according to the Autism Speaks website.

The term “spectrum” reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism, according to the organization.

Melmark New England is a school that serves the needs of children and young adults with autism spectrum disorders, acquired brain injury, neurological diseases and disorders, dual diagnosis and severe challenging behaviors in the Greater Boston area, according to its website. 

Beaulieu, police Capt. James Fitzpatrick, and Brian Farrell, owner of the Claddagh Pub in Lawrence, host an annual comedy night fundraiser for Melmark. 

The event is scheduled this year for Oct. 25, Beaulieu said. 

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.