Autism Awareness Training for Firefighters Gets National Funding

A training program to teach first responder firefighters to recognize the symptoms of autism at an emergency scene is expanding from Massachusetts, where it has been in place since 2005, to 13 other states, including Oklahoma and West Virginia, The Boston Globe is reporting.

The number of diagnoses of the developmental disorder has exploded over the last two decades, making their project's educational work even more poignant and necessary, they said. The federal Centers for Disease Control says autism-spectrum disorders affect 1 in 110 children in this country.

Flashing police lights, the sound of sirens, acrid smoke, and strangers in their homes all add up to sensory overload for children and adults with autism, who might hide, try to bolt from the scene, or even attempt to run back into a burning home, Cannata said.

Responders should look for "stimming,'' or physical movements like arm flapping to relieve stress, and people who hit themselves repetitively or become aggressive, he said.

The center's training demonstrates how to diffuse panic, ask the right questions, and, especially, know what not to do in those tense situations, Cannata said. "For example, running and pinning someone down is a bad idea,'' he said.

Rather, if firefighters have to act quickly, they can take a person with autism to a less frantic spot, or wrap them in a blanket to calm them.

"Give them space, geographic containment, and time,'' he said.

In Massachusetts, the training program is paired with family events designed to introduce children with autism to the police and firefighters they might eventually meet in an emergency.  At these events, parents are urged to have fire drills, work out exit plans, and register with their local police and fire departments so first responders know a person with autism lives in the home.


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