Alexandra Houston, wearing a blue sweater and pearl necklace, sits at a table in a classroom with a laptop, notepad and printed journal articles. Alexandra Houston, wearing a blue sweater and pearl necklace, sits at a table in a classroom with a laptop, notepad and printed journal articles.
Alexandra Houston on Embry-Riddle's Prescott, Arizona, campus. (Photo: Embry-Riddle / Connor McShane)

Navigating Neurodiversity and Law Enforcement
Student Participation in Impactful Research at Embry-Riddle

Story by Makenna Pringle
Makenna Pringle

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While earning her degree in Forensic Psychology, Alexandra Houston has gotten involved in crucial research on Embry-Riddle's Prescott Campus.

Alexandra Houston (’25) is a student researcher at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, earning her B.S. in Forensic Psychology with a minor in Cyber Intelligence and Security. Drawn to her program because of a deep interest in the human brain, Houston explained that beginning her degree at Embry-Riddle was an easy decision.

“Embry-Riddle was the obvious choice for me because of its prestige, the majors it offers and how driven the student population is,” she shared.

Since arriving on the Prescott Campus, Houston has immersed herself in organizations and academic experiences that only deepen her passion for her field.

“I am very involved on campus as the secretary for Psi Chi (Psychology Honors Society) and Beta Eta (Forensic Honors Society),” she said. “I have had the opportunity to connect with people in my major, perform organizational tasks and expand the volunteer outreach for both of these societies on campus.”

Research Experience at Embry-Riddle

In addition to her involvement in honors societies, Houston is a research assistant through the Undergraduate Research Institute, participating in research that studies law enforcement interactions with people on the autism spectrum.

“We focus on learning from existing encounters, as well as current autism and law enforcement training manuals, to develop comprehensive training options for both law enforcement officers and autistic people,” she explained.

Houston completed her research while working alongside her classmate, Alexus Marquez, and under Dr. Diana Orem, assistant professor of Forensic Psychology, and Dr. John Woodman, assistant professor of Psychology.

The team spent six months collecting data by analyzing current training manuals, identifying where these trainings were successful or fell short and applying best practices to facilitate an improved training program.

“This data was referenced to benefit the creation of Dr. Diana Orem’s autism and law enforcement training, which has been administered to local law enforcement and received overwhelmingly positive feedback,” Houston shared.

Houston and her fellow researchers were invited to attend the October 2023 Philanthropy Expo on campus, where they shared their research with university donors and other attendees.

“The assistant dean of research, Dr. Anne Boettcher, guided us through the URI experience and notified us of the Philanthropy Expo. We were eager to present our findings as we connected with the very people that help fund our projects,” Houston recalled of the experience.

APSAC’s Annual Colloquium

While attending the Expo, Houston and Marquez were introduced to Sue Hardie, a member of the board of directors at the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC).

“We spoke about how the goals of her organization aligned with our own. Mrs. Hardie encouraged us to submit our work to APSAC’s 31st Annual Colloquium where researchers and professionals come together to share their expertise,” Houston shared. “Our presentation was accepted, and we are so grateful for our connection with Mrs. Hardie through the URI!”

She spoke more about the upcoming colloquium in New Orleans, Louisiana, expressing her excitement to share their research with a wider audience.

“It has been so rewarding to work hard toward something bigger than myself as we attempt to aid the autism spectrum community. Now, we get to showcase our efforts to people just as passionate about helping others within their communities,” she said. “I am looking forward to connecting with other researchers, as well as listening to their valuable professional experiences!”

Bridging Gaps in Training

Houston continued, explaining the value of researching the interactions between law enforcement and individuals on the autism spectrum.

“Research suggests that autistic individuals are more likely to encounter law enforcement than neurotypical [people]. Although they are more likely to encounter this population, large gaps in officer training are becoming apparent as they are often unstandardized, inconsistent and lack data to track efficacy,” she explained.

“Providing data to reveal gaps and improve training characteristics has the potential to reduce violence and stigma, allow standards to adapt to the current training needs and ensure the protection and well-being of officers and autistic people.”

Houston spoke to her own interest and motivation to pursue research in this area, citing the pressing need for better treatment of those within the autism spectrum community.

“I am very dedicated in doing whatever I can do to protect, support and increase awareness toward the autism community as they do not deserve the struggles they are subjected to,” she said.

Other On-Campus Involvement

In addition to her work in research on campus, Houston is an athlete on the women’s soccer team, something else she says was a driving factor in her decision to attend Embry-Riddle.

“The accomplishments of the players and coaching staff made my decision to attend Embry-Riddle even easier,” she remembered.

“I... have had the absolute pleasure to play with my best friends.”

Outside of student-athlete activities, Houston is a teaching assistant for Dr. Orem, a role that has allowed her to not only gain additional experience in her research, but practice other skills such as outreach, communication and event planning.

“I always value her experience and mentorship!”

In addition to finding inspiration through her professors and peers, Houston says her family inspires her to continue to work hard and achieve her goals.

“My goals for the future include participating in another URI this spring and summer,” she shared. “It will also be focused on autism interaction with law enforcement as we plan to investigate how and when encounters end negatively.”

Tips for Success

Reflecting on her Embry-Riddle experience so far, Houston recommends that incoming students take time to focus on developing time management skills to ease the transition from high school to college.

“My advice for future students would be to develop good time management as quickly as possible,” she said.

"Hard work pays off!"

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