By Michelle L. Matthews
CCC Journalism Program
BLACKWOOD – An Educating First Responders Seminar was held Monday, Dec. 6 in the Forum in the Connector Building at the CCC Blackwood Campus. The seminar focused on identifying symptoms and behaviors of autistic persons to maintain the safety of those involved in an emergency response. An overview of autism was discussed and included problems that persons with autism may have in emergency situations.
Emergency and first responders include the police, the fire department, teachers, bus drivers, or anyone responding to an emergency situation. As of one-and-a-half years ago, New Jersey requires mandatory training seminars for emergency personnel.
Presenter Tia Dix, a mother of an autistic child, noted that “New Jersey is number one in the country for autistic individuals.” This is attributed to New Jersey having better doctors and facilities devoted to the care of persons with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Because of this, New Jersey receives “transplants” from other states adding to the ASD population.
Autism is a neurological disorder. Individuals with ASD do not process information the way many of us do, making it difficult to handle emergency situations. Many ASD individuals experience hyper or hypo sensitivity of all five senses. They may not recognize danger or pain.
Dix stressed using “short, concise directions” and “soft, slower conversations for positive encounters” when dealing with persons with ASD. It was advised to try not to touch the face or shoulders of an individual with ASD as it can lead to aggression, which can be very serious since persons with ASD have “Hulk-like strength”. It was also recommended to talk calmly through any physical restraints that may have to be used. Dix advised that “pen and paper will be your best friends” as it will help a person with autism articulate much easier than trying to get them to speak.
Because students with ASD are being integrated into New Jersey public schools once they achieve the desired skill sets, more calls will be coming into 911 from these schools. Knowing exactly how to approach these individuals is therefore becoming increasingly important.
Jessica Walker, a teacher of students with disabilities at the Moorestown Upper Elementary School, has worked with several ASD students and recognizes the importance of educating first responders on autism. “I have read studies in which it is reported that approximately 35 percent of people with ASD become victims of a crime in their lifetime. Worse, the same study published that 23 percent of people with ASD come in contact with first responders because of eloping and wandering and that sometimes the crimes happen while the individual with ASD is by themselves, or lost because of eloping or wandering. First responders must have the background knowledge to know how to approach, interact, and help people with ASD so that everyone can be protected and safe.”