The training of first responders is absolutely critical to keeping individuals with autism safe. Unfortunately, there are far too many stories of dangerous situations that arise because of a lack of communication and understanding between safety professionals such as firefighters, and individuals with autism and their families. Yesterday, NBC’s Today featured Bill Cannata, the father of a young adult with autism who has developed a program that has educated over 15,000 first responders around the country in how to handle people with autism, and as a result, saved lives. Bill was also a member of the professional advisory committee for the Autism Speaks Autism Safety Project, where he provided tips and quick facts for firefighters interacting with individuals with autism. To further these efforts, in 2011, the Autism Speaks Family Services Community Grants program provided funding for the Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition (ALEC), designed to help foster a deeper understanding of autism spectrum disorders by training public safety and law enforcement personnel. Autism Speaks applauds these first responder training efforts.
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This is a guest post by Gene Bensinger. Gene is on the Advisory Committee for the Autism Safety Project, and a parent advocate on issues affecting adults with autism.
November 22, 2005. It was just before Thanksgiving. I was reading the Chicago Tribune when a headline caught my eye: “Autistic Man Dies in Police Struggle.” The incident had taken place just two days earlier in a much sought after group home located in Des Plaines, Illinois, a fairly affluent, safe suburb of Chicago. The article went on to describe one escalation after another as police tried to subdue the young man with autism, first in his house, then in the fenced-in backyard. The police were called to the home after the young man had severely bitten a caregiver who had tried to restrain him, the reason for which we’ll never know. 30-year-old Hansel “Yusuf” Cunningham never made it home to spend time with his family that Thanksgiving that year. I thought to myself, “How in the world could this have happened?”
As the parent of a then 12-year-old son, I had an emerging understanding that my easily redirected child would soon be a physically bigger and much more visible teen. He would experience the effects that “raging hormones” deliver during puberty. He would ultimately live as an adult in a community that might appear to him a hostile environment of loud noises, confusion, and chaos. So I decided to study the issue of autism safety in detail.
I learned that safety isn’t yet the important part of the autism toolkit it needs to be for everyone in our community. Unlike so many other issues, this is one where the autism community shares widespread agreement. Let’s build some bridges and speak with one voice so that all of us can live safer lives.
As I see it, a big reason that problems escalate out of control is that the behaviors we see in the autism community on a regular basis are the exact same behaviors law enforcement, security professionals, first responders, and others like school administrators have been instructed to recognize as potentially uncooperative, hostile, or even threatening. The problem is that the “book” they used for training is wrong. The good news is that many are rewriting their “books” and getting the training they need. But there’s still a huge gap to bridge when you consider the target audience we need to reach is over 2.5 million professionals!
Rather than risk triggering a tragedy like the one highlighted above, we as a community need to teach law enforcement and others who interact with people on the spectrum to recognize some simple, basic markers, use common, easy de-escalation techniques when needed, and call for help and support from trained specialists. But it’s also not fair to put all of the responsibility on others.
I don’t think we’re doing nearly enough in the autism community to safeguard ourselves or those in our care. Everyone needs to understand and work to mitigate the main risks people with autism may face, like wandering, drowning, and becoming easy targets of crime and abuse. These risks are very real and often appear when least expected.
That’s why I am thrilled that Autism Speaks stepped forward to create the Autism Safety Project, a stand alone website that links professionals, individuals with autism, parents, teachers, judges, and others to the tools they need. If you haven’t yet visited the site, please do! Then reach out and make sure the local professionals in your community or on your team receive specialized training. If they haven’t yet, ask them to! My experience has been, after they study the issue, the answer is always, “Yes.”