The Importance of Autism Awareness for First Responders

According to the most recent information available (Aug. 2015), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that from 2000 to 2010 the prevalence of autism increased by nearly 120 percent. Furthermore, a March 27, 2014 announcement from the CDC states that this condition impacts 1 in 68 children across the nation.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism is a brain development disorder resulting in difficulties related to social interaction and communication. Since the behaviors displayed by individuals with autism vary, this disability is frequently referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

First Responders and Autism Awareness

Every day, first responders encounter individuals in need of assistance. No two emergencies are the same and neither are the individuals involved. This is especially true when it comes to individuals with ASD. Although all first responders are trained to react to a variety of emergency and crisis situations, the typical response is not always the correct response when interacting with individuals who are autistic.

Minimize Risks through Awareness

First responders who take autism training courses online become familiar with the behaviors commonly associated with ASD. Autism training assists first responders in their ability to recognize the signs of these disorders; thus, providing the skills necessary to minimize the risk of experiencing problems while communicating with individuals who are autistic.

Interacting with Individuals Who Have ASD

Safety is a reasonable concern when it comes to individuals with autism: An individual with this disorder tends to become distracted easily, may unexpectedly leave his or her school, place of residence or immediate surroundings, which can lead to the individual becoming lost. When emergency personnel interact with an autistic individual, experience and training dictates the level of difficulty the responder will have when providing assistance.

Joel Lashley – An Expert in Autism Spectrum Disorders

The combination of raising his autistic son, researching ASD and his professional experiences related to the disorder has made Joel Lashley a true expert in autism spectrum disorders. Lashley in conjunction with a wide range of other national professionals collaborated to create a report outlining the characteristics of an individual with ASD. The report states that individuals with autism spectrum disorders do not understand what others need or want from them; furthermore, these individuals may not comprehend that their actions and words could negatively impact themselves or others. This difficulty interacting with natural social values and concepts frequently leads to the individual experiencing problems with others, including law enforcement.

Behaviors Related to Autism Spectrum Disorders

Approximately one-third to one-half of individuals with autism have speech development issues that negatively affect their ability to meet their daily communication needs. Some autistic individuals will mimic others by repeating their words; therefore, many individuals with autism spectrum disorders have difficulty communicating. In addition, recognizing body language is a challenge for people with autism. An individual who has autism may:

  • Struggle when attempting to make and maintain eye contact: This may be misinterpreted by law enforcement as suspicious or defiant. Unfortunately, without adequate autism awareness training, an encounter with an autistic individual can lead to a rapid escalation that ends in injury or death.
  • Find engaging in social situations difficult.
  • Remain unresponsive when someone asks for his or her name and find it difficult to follow verbal commands. It can take more than 10 seconds for an individual with ASD to understand and then comply with a verbal demand.
  • Follow strict routines and perform repetitive behaviors.
  • Become agitated in the event of a new situation, loud noise, the presence of a stranger or an unanticipated surprise.

ASD – Typical Responses to Agitation

Many times, an individual with autism responds to agitation with actions that may be mistaken as a sign of hostility, intoxication or criminal intent. These actions may include:

  • Inappropriate or unusual verbal statements
  • Acting out
  • Balancing difficulties, stumbling
  • Clumsiness
  • Toe-walking
  • Stimming (self-stimulation) – finger-flicking, hand-flapping, twirling or rocking his or her body
  • Audible stimming may include – repetitive speech, humming or other sounds made with the mouth

Terms Used to Describe Autism Spectrum Disorders

For diagnostic purposes, various terms have been used to describe the different levels of autism spectrum disorders. These terms include:

Low-Functioning Autism – Limited or no ability to communicate verbally. Extreme repetitive behaviors, acting-out and/or self-destructive behavior frequently occurs when the individual becomes stressed.

Moderate-Functioning Autism – Limited speech with problems communicating. When the individual becomes agitated, he or she may begin demonstrating inappropriate, repetitive and what seems to be irrelevant speech. In addition, acting-out or self-destructive behaviors are possible.

High-Functioning Autism – Communicates well verbally, but has difficulty with physical coordination and obedience during stressful situations. Has trouble recognizing social cues, which can lead to poor judgment. Realizing that a situation could be dangerous may be difficult for an individual with high-functioning autism.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) Heller’s Syndrome – This condition is characterized by its late onset of developmental delays in social function, motor skills and language.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder (or Delay) – Not Otherwise Specified (PPD-NOS) – This disorder is typically milder than autism is itself; however, it does have some of the same symptoms.

Diagnostic Changes for Individuals with Autism

In May of 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) revised its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5). One of the revisions includes a change in the diagnostic terms used for individuals with autism. An individual previously diagnosed with a traditional term will keep his or her original diagnosis; however, following the implementation of the APA’s revision, individuals newly diagnosed with autism will receive an autism spectrum disorder or a social communication disorder diagnosis, as opposed to Asperger’s disorder, autistic disorder, PDD-NOS or childhood disintegrative disorder. Impairments have been reduced to two domains, which include:

  1. Restricted, repetitive behavior patterns, activities or interests
  2. Social communication and interaction

Each of these domains has three severity levels:

  1. Requiring support
  2. Requiring substantial support
  3. Requiring very substantial support

Autism Training for First Responders

The substantial rise in the number of individuals who have ASD makes autism awareness training essential for police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics. There are autism training modules designed to assist first responders in recognizing and contending with the characteristics and behavioral symptoms of autism. Incorporating autism awareness training into the routine requirements for all first responders gives them the information they need to protect and serve the public, make optimal use of their time and avoid mistakes that could lead to negative media, lawsuits, morale issues and traumatic experiences for all of those involved.


Trina brings to Relias a wealth of knowledge and personal experience related to the medical field, dental issues, mental health, and physical therapy techniques. She has worked in various positions over her career which includes being a phlebotomist, laboratory assistant and medical transcriptionist.

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