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The Importance of Autism Awareness for First Responders

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 54 children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In 2000, the CDC reported that the combined prevalence of autism among 1,000 children was 6.7; by 2016, that had increased to 18.5. That is a nearly 300% increase. As more children are diagnosed, autism awareness for first responders will become more and more critical. Autism Spectrum Disorder 

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). 

Autism awareness and first responders 

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 with autism. 

Minimize risks through autism awareness for first responders 

Autism awareness allows first responders to 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. 

Interacting with individuals who have ASD 

Safety is a reasonable concern when it comes to individuals with autism: an individual with ASD tends to become distracted easily and 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. 

Behaviors related to Autism Spectrum Disorder 

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 individuals will mimic others by repeating their words; therefore, many individuals with autism spectrum disorder 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 for first responders, an encounter with an individual with autism 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 an typical responses to agitation 

Many times, an individual with autism responds to agitation with actions that first responders mistake 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 

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 awareness training for first responders 

The substantial rise in the number of individuals who have ASD makes autism awareness for first responders essential training for police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and paramedics. Consider providing your first responders with autism training modules designed to assist them in recognizing the characteristics and behavioral symptoms of autism as well working with individuals with ASD.

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. This could help to avoid negative media, lawsuits, morale issues, and, above all, traumatic experiences for all of those involved. 

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