Police, first responders learn how to deal with people with autism

Tuesday September 25, 2012


The idea of running back into a burning building after being rescued may seem dangerous, even ridiculous to many people. For a person with autism, it may seem like the logical thing to do.

"Every person affected by the [autism] spectrum is very different," said Jason Dorval, a Whately-based firefighter and EMT-paramedic.

He is also the parent of four children, including an 11-year-old son with autism and Down syndrome. Because of this, Dorval is a workshop leader for the Autism Law Enforce ment Education Coalition (ALEC), which aims to educate law enforcement and emergency responders on how a person with aut ism might react differently in a crisis situation.

Dorval recently led a workshop in Great Barrington, attended by 16 law and emergency management personnel, community members and parents, and members of social service agencies. Participants represented a range of Berkshire towns, from Washington to Pittsfield to North Adams. Workshops are available, free, to emergency responders and law enforcement under a state fund.

Dorval explained that many people with autism rely on routine and the comforts of a consistent environment in their lives. Places like their home and bedroom are considered safe spaces to them, regardless of whether they are on fire. Which is why, Dorval said, a person with autism may be reluctant and even physically defiant about having to leave their homes in an emergency.

Luci Leonard of the Community Health Workers Alliance of Berkshire County co-organized the event with the Faith Commun ity Partnering for Emergency Preparedness.

A mother who also has a son with autism, Leonard said she's experienced challenging situations, in which communication and un der standing of her son's behaviors was critical.

For example, while attending a rally with her family in Boston in support of President Barack Obama, her son was stopped at a metal detection checkpoint because he had a ring with him. When security agents referred to her son as "sir," the 15-year-old did not step back and said he was a boy, not a sir. The teenager was swarmed by officers until Leonard explained he had autism.

"My son looks like a man, but he's still a boy, and he doesn't understand, and security didn't understand," Leonard said.

During the workshop, Dorval gave attendees various strategies for families and responders to use to ease potential miscommunications and to provide more safety for children and adults with autism.

"You don't always look like you have autism," said Dorval, noting that some people with autism may not speak while others can speak very intelligently. People with autism can also be hyper-sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, touch and taste.

To help identify people with autism, Dorval said families can obtain car and home window decals or get a family member an ID bracelet or card indicating a person with autism, or simply tell dispatchers if they are making a 9-1-1 call.

Responders can do things like talk slowly and use simple language or reduce the amount of lights and sirens in their response to create less confusion and stress for the person with autism.


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