First responders learn to communicate better with those with autism
People on the autism spectrum do not respond to their surroundings in the same way "neuro-typical" people do, Valerie Wheat, assistant director of Autism Studies at Jacksonville State University, told Southside first responders during a training session Monday.
"Some of their responses may seem very strange," Wheat said.
That can be frustrating in many settings. In an encounter with law enforcement, it could be far more serious.
Wheat talked to first responders about some of the behaviors they might see in people with autism spectrum disorder and ways to better deal with them.
Such training is needed: Studies indicate individuals with autism are seven times more likely to come in contact with law enforcement.
Wheat said autism is a social and communication disorder that can cause those who have it to sometimes display "mindblindness" to others. They can't read what others are thinking or pick up on body language and are not able to put themselves in another person's place to see things from someone else's perspective.
They might not recognize a police, firefighter or medic's uniform or understand how they are supposed to respond to the person wearing it.
Wheat asked officers what they typically think if they stop a driver and the driver won't make eye contact with them.
"He's hiding something," more than one first responder responded.
"A person on the autism spectrum, many times they just can't do that," Wheat said, adding that some with autism have communicated that it hurts to make eye contact.
People with autism sometimes won't respond to questions as people might expect. "They don't have the ability to initiate a conversation, so they revert to a script," Wheat said - a repeated question or phrase.
She said her nephew is autistic, and he has certain questions he repeats over and over to family members, usually related to something he associated with them.
People with ASD don't understand figurative language. "They are very concrete thinkers," Wheat said. "Using fewer words is better."
She said too many words sounds to someone with ASD like Charlie Brown's teacher.
"All autistic people are different," Wheat said, but she welcomed the chance to talk to officers about ways to recognize someone who might have trouble understanding them and responding to them.
She said a lot goes into working with children with autism in school settings, but there's little done to help those with ASD as they grown older and are in contact with a world of people who know little about their challenges.
Southside City Council member Dana Snyder helped make the training session possible. She has a grandson with ASD, and has been involved in training session with Wheat.
Some first responders in the Southside area were aware of ASD-related issues because of family members affected by them.
That awareness had led the department to reach out to families, asking them to make the police and fire department aware of anyone with ASD or other challenges in case there is a call to their residence.
The residences can be flagged so dispatchers can alert officers or firefighters when they respond to a call at that address.
"We have some that we keep current pictures of," Lt. Blake Ragsdale said.
Others have contact with ASD children in the school system. Former School Resource Office Clay Johnson said there were three students with ASD at the elementary school, and one had the tendency to run.
"We put traffic safety vests on them," he said, to help school personnel keep track of the children outside the classroom.
"That's a very good idea," Wheat said.
She told officers they would see people with ASD outside schools. "Not all are on the extreme end of the spectrum," she said. Some people are working as engineers, but still face some of the social and communication challenges of ASD.
"They will be driving," Wheat said, and officers may well encounter them.
The latest figures indicate one in 59 children are being identified on the austim spectrum, across all racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups.
Lt. Jay Freeman said the department appreciated Wheat's instruction.
"This is good training," he said. "It's not all about tactics. This is another good tool for the tool belt."
Wheat shared with first responders a list of tendencies for those with autism, and techniques to help officers help them.
A person with autism might:
* Have an impaired sense of danger
* Wander to bodies of water, traffic or other potential dangers
* Fear a person in uniform, or exhibit curiosity and reach for objects or equipment like a shiny badge or handcuffs
* React with "fight" or "flight"
* Not respond to "stop" or other commands
* Have delayed speech and language skills
* Not respond to his/her name or verbal commands
* Avoid eye contact
* Engage in repetitive behavior such as rocking, stimming (self-stimulating behavior), hand flapping, spinning)
* Have sensory perception issues
* Have epilepsy or seizure disorder
* Have serious food allergies
When interacting with a person with autism spectrum disorder:
* Be patient and give the person space
* Use simple and concrete sentences
* Give plenty of time for the person to process and respond
* Be alert to signs of increased frustration and try to eliminate the source if possible as behavior may escalate
* Avoid quick movements and loud noises
* Do not touch the person unless absolutely necessary
* Use information from caregivers, if available, on how to best respond
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