As situations arise where first responders are necessary, it’s important for them to understand how to approach individuals diagnosed with autism. Individuals with autism are unique and cannot be learned about strictly from textbooks. Every person with autism is different in the ways they communicate and interact with others. As the saying goes, “You meet one individual with autism, you’ve only met one.”
Communicating and interacting in new ways
First responders can come into contact with individuals with autism for various reasons — from medical emergencies to worried parents of missing children. Often, if they’re uninformed on the different ways autism is presented, it can escalate and send an already intense situation spiraling out of control.
To continue making their community in Allentown, Pa., a safer place Autism Resource Community Hub of Lehigh Valley, a program of the nonprofit organization Elwyn, continuously reaches out to inform, train and host events that specialize in spreading autism awareness and safety.
While there are various events held, Autism Safety Day brings first responders, individuals with autism and their families together in a relaxed environment. The event allows them to interact in a way that makes families more comfortable while educating first responders on the many ways autism is presented in each individual. Meeting several first responders in a de-stressed way can help individuals with autism in the long run so they don’t associate a uniformed person with a bad situation.
“ARCH of Lehigh Valley and local first responders’ partnership began through numerous situations that have occurred in our community when first responders were involved with children diagnosed with autism,” explained Parent Partner of ARCH of LV Robin Urenko.
“There are many components to autism, presenting itself differently depending on the individual. We’ve received positive feedback from both families and first responders in the community about our safety day event.”
Families in Lehigh Valley and surrounding areas have been impressed with how knowledgeable first responders are, something that wouldn’t have been heard five or 10 years ago. Whether it was lack of awareness, information or both, first responders have come a long way in extending their understanding.
Representatives from the surrounding areas also attend ARCH’s safety day event, gathering as much information as they can to take back to their department and share knowledge. Some representatives have even taken the information they’ve learned from events to present at national conferences, reaching a greater audience to create a larger impact.
Training is another educational opportunity ARCH offers to departments upon request. A variety of topics are covered in the training, from discussing triggers and queues to sensory sensitivity and communication with nonverbal individuals. As many tools as possible are provided, including different strategies, so first responders can be as prepared as possible when the situation arises. Because of the initiative of the partnership in Lehigh Valley, the community has seen improvement in the awareness of first responders.
“I know this is an issue departments are striving to be more aware of and more responsive to,” commented William Johnson, executive director of National Association of Police Organizations. “Leadership on all levels of agencies would benefit by meeting with and learning from their community’s advocacy groups to learn about the condition and various manifestations of autism. There are different ways that a person with autism may behave or respond that may be a little different than ways other citizens respond.”
Another challenge that Johnson addresses is if a child with autism goes missing, it’s important to note that they may be attracted to hazardous things such as bodies of water and roadways. The child may find those areas appealing and be drawn toward them. While that is only one example, it means that officers should prioritize those areas to be searched in an effort to prevent any possible harm.
When it comes to training, first responders receive loads of information within a limited amount of time, which can ultimately pose as a challenge. Having a representative relay the information back to the department becomes beneficial for all parties and brings the community together. Patience is a necessary component when it comes to learning about autism and approaching situations that involve an individual with autism.
“It is our mission to reach out to first responders as this is an important community concern,” stated Urenko. “First responders are receptive to information and training; however, resources are limited due to the demands of their positions. When first responders gain knowledge, share and implement it with each other, our community benefits.”
By partnering with local advocacy groups, meeting individuals with autism and their families and looking into a variety of training methods, including online or video training, first responders can keep up to date on the latest techniques to be effective in situations. There are many more resources to take advantage of today than there were a few years ago.