Responding to incidents involving individuals with autism: A guide for first responders

May 29, 2024

The importance of understanding autism for first responders

The US Fire Administration has published an infographic titled “Responding to Incidents Involving Individuals With Autism” to assist first responders in managing high-stress situations involving people with autism.

This guide emphasizes the necessity for first responders to prioritize safety and understand the unique needs of individuals with autism.

Autism, a spectrum disorder, affects brain development and social interaction, causing difficulties in interpreting social cues and potential sensory overwhelm.

With 1 in 36 children in the U.S. diagnosed with autism, first responders are likely to encounter individuals with this condition.

The guide recommends strategies such as allowing extra time for information processing, maintaining empathy, and avoiding judgmental statements during meltdowns or outbursts.

Additionally, engaging with an individual’s special interests can help establish rapport.

Practical guidance for first responders

The guide provides several key recommendations for first responders.

Clear language and simple words should be used when communicating, avoiding idioms.

Visual aids and explanations of procedures are beneficial, even for nonverbal individuals.

Minimizing sensory stimuli by reducing unnecessary noise and using sensory-friendly items can help prevent sensory overwhelm.

Safety is a priority, and first responders are advised to recognize when to retreat from escalating situations and when verbal de-escalation is appropriate.

The guide also highlights the importance of understanding and adapting to the unique processing of information by individuals with autism.

Resources and legislative support

Kevin and Avonte’s Law supports the expansion of training for first responders and caregivers.

Named after two boys with autism who tragically perished after wandering away from supervised settings, this law provides the foundation for the International Association of Chiefs of Police Home Safe program.

The Home Safe program released a suite of resources in September 2023 to aid first responders.

The guide, “Understanding Children on the Autism Spectrum: A Guide for First Responders,” published by Home Safe and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in August 2023, offers further recommendations.

It defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and describes a whole community approach, including search protocols and a questionnaire for first responders.

Building awareness and community partnerships

The guide emphasizes the importance of building awareness through community partnerships and the use of technological solutions.

The NCMEC’s ongoing efforts aim to raise awareness about the rate at which children on the autism spectrum go missing and are recovered deceased due to accidental deaths such as drowning.

By providing detailed recommendations and resources, the guide aims to enhance the capability of law enforcement to support children with autism effectively.

It also includes a list of additional resources for further assistance.

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