Autism 101:  What First Responders Need to Know

A while back, my wife made reservations for the two of us and Jimmy to fly to Vegas to visit family.  Pat requested bulk-head seating so Jimmy would not kick the passengers in front of him.  When the airline agent began to hesitate, she explained that Jimmy had a disability known as autism, and used Rain Man as an example.  But this made matters worse.  The agent, worried that Jimmy might lose control, felt it was not safe to have Jimmy on the plane.  At that point, I got involved, talked to the agent’s supervisor and we eventually worked things out.  When I recall this incident, it brings to mind the familiar adage, “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”

Recently, I read about training for first responders who might come into contact with children or adults with autism.  Police, firefighters, paramedics, and other professionals are beginning to receive much-needed training in the area.  Imagine a crash course in Autism 101.  They’re being taught clues that point to autism, what to expect if this is the case, how to respond, and safety tips.  While lectures, videos, group exercises, and power point presentations are a start, I would recommend that first responders also spend some time with someone like my son Jimmy and other members of the autism community.

Take police.  According one recent estimate, autistic individuals have seven times more contact with law enforcement over the course of their lifetimes than the larger population.  Many of these encounters involve people on the autistic spectrum who are elopers, meaning they tend to wander off and put themselves in danger.  If and when they are found, they might very well react to sounds, lights, and noise differently.  Instructions may be difficult for them to process.  For example, if police officers encounter my son, they might mistakenly assume his reactions (ignoring them, nervous laughter, lack of eye contact) are a sign of disrespect.  Or perhaps they might think he’s on drugs.  And in a stressful situation, they are apt to find it extremely challenging to communicate with him.

When it comes to training, the tough thing about autism is that there is no checklist.  When you encounter one person with autism, you encounter one person with autism.  While some have sensory sensitivities, others do not.  While some do not maintain eye contact, others do.  While some may find it difficult to communicate during an interrogation, that’s not true of all by any means.  While some act like Raymond (from Rain Man) or Shaun Murphy (from The Good Doctor), the vast majority are much more different than similar to those characters.  Autistic people do not act and react a certain way; rather they act and react in diverse, often unpredictable ways; just like the rest of us.  And there is no one tried-and-true technique for calming an autistic person who may be having a difficult time holding it together.  What first responders do to provide assistance might not work.  If that’s the case, they should try to be as calm, patient, and understanding as possible; and persist.  That in itself is a lesson worth learning.

Please note: I am currently writing a book about my entire family and how we have grown over the years, in large part because of Jimmy.  My son Jimmy is a middle-aged adult on the autism spectrum.  The voices and perspectives of my son, my two daughters and wife as well as friends and professionals are included throughout.  It’s a real, uplifting, and remarkable story; one which I have wanted to share for a long time.  The book will be published later this year.


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