First responders get training to assist those with autism

North Riverside hosts program for local police and fire agencies, others

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By Bob Uphues


About 70 local police officers, firefighters, paramedics, high school and mall security and emergency dispatchers from North Riverside, Brookfield, Riverside and Brookfield Zoo got a crash course in handling incidents involving people on the autism spectrum last week during special training sessions at the North Riverside Village Commons.

North Riverside Fire Chief John Kiser welcomed the opportunity to host three two-hour training sessions on Sept. 17-19, which were taught by Shannon Swanson, autism specialist from EasterSeals Chicago and funded through a grant from Autism Speaks.

"We're seeing an uptick in calls where we're dealing with autistic individuals," Kiser said, adding that the training paramedics have gotten previously was online. "This is the first opportunity where we've had direct contact and sit in a live classroom and hear from professionals on what's the best way."

North Riverside paramedics in the past year have responded to a couple of incidents involving people who appeared to be behaving unusually, but had no identifiable medical issues. It wasn't immediately apparent to the paramedics that the individuals were autistic, he said.

Paramedics in one instance were called to North Riverside Park Mall after security there observed an adult sitting in the same spot for several hours. Unsure what to do, they called paramedics.

"It took us a little while to realize we were dealing with somebody who was autistic. They didn't have any immediate emergency medical complaints, but being able to communicate with them, we struggled."

The inability of first responders to communicate with someone on the spectrum or identify that they are autistic can lead to potentially dangerous situations.

Swanson, a social worker who previously ran EasterSeals' adult program in Chicago, said the adults with autism in the program had frequent contact with police, paramedics and firefighters.

"There were several situations where had the appropriate supports not been in place or had there not been a support person there, the results could have been very, very different," Swanson said.

Family members expressed fear, Swanson said, that police or paramedics would misinterpret the actions of someone with autism, when someone has called in to report an adult acting strangely.

One incident that might have turned out different involved a man with autism who, because of a paratransit mix-up, was dropped off outside a program location after hours in the dark.

When he's anxious, the man engages in behavior that would seem odd. Fortunately, there were staff still inside the building who were able to help the man. But what would have happened if those people weren't there? Swanson said the program site was attached to a school.

"What would have happened if this large man is trying to get into a locked school late at night, isn't responding, isn't answering questions? It's something that could get so dangerous and go wrong so quickly."

Swanson said she wanted to offer this kind of training to address that need, and started offering it to police and fire departments at a cost of $750 an hour. But when factoring in multiple shifts, the cost drove some smaller agencies away, so she applied for and obtained a $5,000 grant from Autism Speaks to help defray the cost.

One of the takeaways from the training is a "toolkit" with items to help emergency personnel communicate with someone on the spectrum. The items include cards, that can assist police and paramedics understand the problem they're confronting – whether someone is in pain or needs to take their medication – or to obtain information like the phone number of a relative.

If the person needs to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance or in a police vehicle, picture cards explaining the process of what's about to happen or dry-erase cards where that process can be written out can help reassure them. The toolkit also contain "sensory fidgets," items to keep a person occupied during times of stress.

"Individuals with autism have complex sensory needs oftentimes, so being able to provide them something to keep their hands occupied or to focus on something other than the situation at hand can help ease that anxiety and keep them calm," Swanson said.

And there's also a business card-sized reminder card first responders can carry with them to provide a quick reference of how to approach situations that may involve someone with autism – to approach in a non-threatening way, understanding sensory needs, talking in calm tone, keeping instructions simple, etc.

"I took at least five or six bullet points away outside of looking at the toolkit as a valuable asset," Kiser said. "Having those cards available to the crews is important to remind them how to communicate. For us to slow down on a call is difficult, so having some triggers for us is important for us to best serve these people." 

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