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ASD and First Responders: Bridging the Gap

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Autism Spectrum Disorder and First Responders:  Bridging the Gap

Amelia Ramstead

Autism Asperger’s Digest | Online Article July 2012


Emergency situations are usually enough to frighten anyone. But for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the flashing lights, loud sirens, and unpredictable action are often enough to send them into complete overload, causing them to shut down or have a meltdown. In some emergencies, such as a fire, these behaviors can compound the problem and create an extremely dangerous situation, both for the person with ASD and the first responder.

In some situations, ASD can be the emergency. A meltdown that has spiraled out of control can put family members, teachers, and even the person with ASD in danger, and sometimes emergency services have to be called to intervene. A person with ASD may also wander away and may behave unpredictably once out of familiar and comfortable surroundings.

Further compounding the problem, most first responders have limited training on ASD. The condition is barely touched upon in the curriculum. Unless the first responder knows someone with ASD personally, he or she may not know how to identify someone with the condition or the best way to approach or assist the person. And as the number of people diagnosed with an ASD continues to rise, the chances of emergency personnel coming across them also grows.

Fortunately, the story does not end here. This gap in training has been noticed, and a number of first responders, especially those who have a loved one with ASD, are taking important steps to remedy the situation. Programs are springing up around the country to provide autism awareness to first responders and training on how to help people with ASD in an emergency situation. These programs have been met with an enthusiastic response.

Autism Training Programs for First Responders

Captain Bill Cannata of the Westwood Fire Department in Massachusetts is intimately familiar with the challenges posed by autism—he is the parent of a young man with ASD. In 2003, he attended a presentation given for law enforcement about autism. Inspired by the program for law enforcement, he decided to develop his own program to provide focus to the rescue aspect. Working together with the program presenter, he created the Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition (ALEC). A training video was released in 2009.

Over 15,000 first responders up and down the East Coast have now been trained through the ALEC program. Capt. Cannata hopes to continue training even more first responders. “Our goal is to train every first responder in the country: police, fire, EMT, paramedics, and hospital emergency staff,” he says.

Across the country in Washington State, Lieutenant Chuck De Smith, Chief Medical Officer of the Renton Fire Department, has a similar goal but a different vision. Also the parent of a child with ASD, Lt. De Smith wants to see autism training become a part of the regular monthly training rotation, just like cardiac or diabetic emergencies.

“We have a training program that’s established every year,” Lt. De Smith explained, “with training modules that are set up as the national standard.” He would like to see ASD included as a part of that regular curriculum. While ideally ASD would have its own section, he believes that it should be included at least as part of the mental emergencies section. “It’s right on the edge,” he says.

How Parents Can Help

Both Capt. Cannata and Lt. De Smith agree that parents and caregivers can make a huge difference in how an emergency situation goes, regardless of whether the emergency is specifically autism related. Communication is key, both before and after an emergency occurs. “The big goal is to understand each other and be able to work with each other, especially in a crisis,” says Capt. Cannata.

1. Get to know your emergency service providers. Contact your local fire department and police station and let them know who you are and talk to them about your son or daughter with ASD. “Take the trip to the police station or the fire station,” Capt. Cannata says. “If you can plan ahead, that’s the best thing to do.”

Lt. De Smith recommends this approach as well. He suggests that you find out if Premise Alert information is available in your area. This is a program that many emergency service providers use that immediately notifies dispatchers of any special circumstances at the location. “It’s just information for us, and that way the officers know that your child has autism. It’s not a kid that’s trying to hurt me; he’s just in a rage right now, and I need to give him some room.” This not only helps to de-escalate the situation when the responders arrive, but can also ensure that the correct services are dispatched.

2. If possible, meet the first responders as soon as they arrive. Every person with autism is an individual, and you know your loved one better than anyone else. Chances are good that you know what works well to calm him down. Perhaps your loved one responds well to pressure, and a weighted blanket or a bear hug will help. Or maybe talking about a passion or providing a favorite toy will snap him out of a meltdown.

3. Advocate for first responder training in your area. Find out if your local fire department or police department has set up training for their officers. If not, request that they do so. Let them know about programs like ALEC that are available. Suggest that they have an open house for people with ASD to come in and meet firefighters and police in their uniforms and gear. “If you think about the gear we wear, it can be pretty scary,” says Capt. Cannata. “This way, if the firefighters do come to the house in an emergency with their fire gear on, it’s not so foreign to the person with ASD. They remember the good time they had at the fire station and that this person is friendly.” Encourage your local responders to get to know the autism community and work together with local autism associations.



Amelia Ramstead is a freelance writer, wife, and full-time mother of two living in Renton, Washington.


Resources for Parents and First Responders

The Council of State Governments


Bill Cannata and Fire/Rescue Autism


Your local fire department and police station


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