First Responders Learn about People with Autism

Autism Speaks staff member and autism mom Marianne Sullivan trained the Stockton, Cal. police department on autism awareness and best practices when interacting with people on the autism spectrum.

This is a post by Marianne Sullivan, RN, MN, who works on the Autism Speaks Community Outreach team and is mom to a 22-year-old son with autism. Last week, Marianne trained the Stockton, Cal. Police Department on autism awareness and best practices when interacting with people with autism.

As more activities and inclusion opportunities become available in communities for people with autism, there are also new risks of this population being misunderstood and reacted to with fear by police or other first responders who may know little, if anything, about the dsorder. As a result, it is vital to educate first responders about autism and best practices to insure appropriate and supportive responses if safety situations arise involving individuals on the spectrum. First responders should welcome this training, as they play a critical role in maintaining the safety of people with autism in communities.

Recently, Jesus Zavala, a parent of a 10-year-old son with autism and a Stockton, California police officer, approached the Autism Speaks Community Outreach team, asking for autism-specific training for his local police department. The Community Outreach team was pleased with the opportunity and the training event was held on December 10, 2014, to an enthusiastic audience of 30 Stockton officers.

The three hour training module included education about autism, detailing how it affects a person’s behavior communications and social responses. Officers welcomed this new understanding as some admitted they had little previous knowledge about autism. Some even held to stereotyped misinformation. The status of the latest research was shared, as well as effective treatments including behavioral interventions and medications.

The training then covered the best practices and effective strategies for interacting with people with autism and promoted greater awareness of the officers with the various resources provided by the Autism Speaks Autism Safety Project. At this point, the training moved into problem solving scenarios with practice interviews, where an officer interacts with another officer role playing as a person with autism. We heard from the officers that having the opportunity to see the world from the other side, even in a role playing manner was rather powerful.

Below are some reminders the officers were given when interviewing a person with autism who is able to verbally respond:

  • Use the person’s name at the start of each sentence so he/she knows you are addressing him/her.
  • Use clear, concise and simple language – no sarcasm, metaphors, etc.
  • Maintain a calm environment; minimize distractions, e.g., sensory overload.
  • Allow frequent breaks.
  • Stand at a greater distance from the person than you might normally until you have his/her attention and some level of trust.
  • Explain what is happening and why you are there in very basic terms, emphasizing that you are there to help.
  • Inform the individual how long the interview is going to last, as well as what will happen at the end.
  • Ask one question at a time, allowing time for the person to process and respond.

The training stressed that each person with autism will have a different level of language ability and behavioral challenges. Some persons with autism will have a caregiver with them at all times, but many won’t. Some adults will live semi-independently and few will be almost fully independent.

It was emphasized that because autism is a spectrum disorder, it’s not easy to characterize what a person with autism might look like. For first responders, it is important to take some time to observe. Again, officers were reminded that most persons with autism will have difficulties quickly and easily following a responder’s verbal commands and will not be able to easily read another person’s body language. Almost all will have some level of difficulty in social understanding.

This type of training reduces fear and misunderstandings for first responders and should prevent unnecessary physical escalation in their responses to a person with ASD in the community.  In the end, everyone feels safer and the community becomes more inclusive!

CONTACT US: If your local first responders (e.g., police, firemen, EMTs) would benefit from this type of training, contact: outreach@autismspeaks.org. The Autism Speaks Community Outreach team is committed to offering training to promote the safety of all people with autism by providing awareness, education and resources to first responders at no cost. The team can adapt the above training module to fit the needs and schedule of any audience, including lunchtime presentations as well as an extended module.

Learn more about safety resources from Autism Speaks here!


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