Family Autism Center program consultant and EMT Jason Dorval addressed a crucial emergency need at on Monday night: how first responders can most safely and effectively help citizens who have an autism spectrum disorder.
"Your approach in the first few minutes is going to determine how exactly that call is going to go," Dorval said to assembled first responders, teachers and parents from Tolland and surrounding towns.
Dorval draws not only from his years as an EMT, but from personal experience with his son, who has Down Syndrome and autism.
"Patience is the key," he said. "These calls will take twice as long."
Dorval explained that autism training is especially important today, since there is an increase in autism spectrum disorders in the population. According to Dorval, approximately 1.7 million Americans have autism spectrum disorder.
Yet, Dorval said, there is relatively little focus on how to best respond to those with autistic disorders in traditional paramedic, firefighter and EMT training.
Tolland Fire Chief John Littell said that first responder, teacher and parent awareness is key to increasing emergency response safety for those with autism.
"There's a rising need in the community," he said. "I'm going to try to follow through with a lot of the key points here in the community."
Dorval gave the participants a wealth of information, beginning with how to identify those with autism when arriving at a scene. He explained that unusual walking patterns, the inability to verbally respond to questions and a lack of eye contact, traits that can appear in those with autism, can sometimes come off as intoxication or non-compliance to unknowing first responders.
Dorval said that behaviors such as repetitive motions, an inappropriate response to a situation (i.e. laughing instead of crying when upset), and echoing back phrases are signs responders could look for to try to determine if a person is autistic.
And once a responder suspects that a resident is autistic, certain precautions should be taken.
He recalled one real-life example in which a teenage autistic boy was rescued from a fire in the middle of the night, only to run back into the house four times before firefighters kept a hold of him. Dorval explained that the boy had learned that he shouldn't be out of the house at night. Therefore, without a sense of his personal safety, he walked right back into a burning building.
"It is common for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder to have seemingly inappropriate reactions to situations, commands and body language," he said.
Other than preventing harmful wandering, Dorval explained that responders should try to prevent sensory overload for autistic citizens by turning off sirens, unnecessary lights, etc. which can be overwhelming.
Dorval said they should speak clearly and simply, since verbal communication can be difficult for those with autism, and that responders should take care before touching an autistic person, since touch can also be overwhelming.
Communication with caregivers is also key; and if the autistic resident has a verbal communication aid with them, responders should be sure to bring it into the ambulance and to the hospital, he said.
But overall, Dorval stressed that responders should keep an open mind, since autism affects each individual differently.
"Every person is unique," he said.
For more information on the Massachusetts-based Family Autism Center, visit the organization's website.