A call comes in for a fire at a group home for mentally challenged adults. The caregivers have gotten nearly everyone out safely, but one of the non-verbal adults who has Asperger’s syndrome is panicking at a second-floor window. He cannot understand directions, as you — the fire fighter — climb in the window and try to bring him down the ladder safely. What do you do?
The poignant headlines continue to read: “Autistic child dies in fire — refused to jump,” “Adult with Asperger’s syndrome killed on road,” “Autistic girl killed in house fire.”
Autism and its related disorders — Asperger’s syndrome and unspecified pervasive developmental disorder — are some of the most rapidly growing global disabilities. Because each case is so different, it is difficult for first responders to plan exactly how to handle such adults and children in an emergency situation.
A person with autism may be verbal or non-verbal; he or she may do things repetitively, such as body rocking, crossing and uncrossing of legs, marching in place, or having seizures or meltdowns. Yet, some people with autism can marry, go to college, have sex and do any number of other things.
According to www.Prevent-Educate.org, which makes first responders aware of the disability and offers information and safety-centered staff training, “new statistics show that at least a million children and adults have a diagnosis of autism or a related disorder … one of every 88 children in the U.S. is born with some level of autism. This is up 78 percent in the past decade.”
John Sokol, program coordinator and executive director of the Illinois-based curriculum and captain of the Pembroke Fire Protection District, said the secret to prevention is education. Through the website, he offers critical safety information and training for first responders in approaching individuals with autism in emergency situations.
“Individuals with autism are so unique and their actions so unpredictable that this training is not only for their safety, but for that of the firefighter and EMT as well,” said Sokol. “If you walked into a fire and went to grab the individual, and he acted out not in fear of you, but in fear of being touched, you can get hurt as a result. There’s no room for mistakes in the field. Everyone’s safety is important.”
Deputy Fire Chief Timothy Leidig of the Mundelein, Ill., Fire Department is the father of a high-functioning autistic son.
“My experiences with first responders have a wide variance of emotions from frightening to an extreme level of pride. I always had a fear of what would happen if my son needed assistance by a first responder,” said Leidig. “I have seen responders physically restraining individuals with autism with the assumption that the person had overdosed, drunk or was having a psychosomatic emergency. I have also seen trained responders that handle situations involving individuals with autism in a kind, compassionate manner where the individuals were willing to come with the responders and to develop trust in them.”
Due to the training of first responders in Mundelein, the city has had notable successes on several occasions.
“A high school staff called 911 for a person having seizures,” recalled Leidig, “and our staff was able to communicate and reassure the young man of his surroundings, what was happening and control the stimulus affecting his level of anxiety for a positive outcome.
“Another instance involved an auto accident where the mother of a young boy was injured and bleeding. Responders were able to cope with the boy, settle his fears to the point where he was able to communicate his phone number and could manage the stimulus happening around him.
Afterward, both he and his mother wrote heart-warming thank-you notes to our staff, and his mother said that our staff, because of their treatment, has restored a level of trust in this young man that the family has never seen before.”
He emphasized that the plans for managing an individual with autism were not as important as the skills to identify and acknowledge to all participants on the incident that the individual may have an Autism-Spectrum disorder.
Sokol, who created the Prevent-Educate website, said that the concept presents to students a description and understanding of autism, teaches them how to recognize autistic traits and characteristics, shows how to communicate with a person with autism in emergency situations, coaches them to reduce dangerous behaviors that could lead to either the first responder or the autistic person getting injured and trains them how to best restrain the person if they are unable to control him or her.
Many states have approved this continuing education course for their EMS personnel department.