Imagining the bright lights, the loud sirens, sometimes just picturing ourselves picking up the phone to dial 911 for our family can cause our heart to race and breath to quicken. We do our best to protect our loved ones but unfortunately, emergencies happen where emergency assistance is needed and valued. This situation is difficult for any family, but for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their family, emergency situations can be a particularly difficult experience.
Studies show that children with ASD are seven times more likely to come in contact with first responders than children without ASD. This rate could be due to the high level of elopement, difficulty with flexibility that is often needed in emergency situations, as well as confusion and disorientation that can happen with overwhelming physical and emotional stimuli.
The best way to prepare your child for these stressful situations is to plan ahead and get them as comfortable as possible with these community helpers.
General Information For Emergency Situations
– Try to teach your child a script of information with their name as well as their emergency contact and phone number. A study suggested that one-third of children who run off are not able to communicate with officials this vital information. Practicing with your child to respond to questions like “What is your name?,” “Where is your mom?”, “What is your dad’s phone number?” etc…
– Often, medical alert bracelets are used now to identify if the child has ASD or a related disorder. This can assist the emergency responder in knowing how to interact with the child as well as how to best provide treatment.
– GPS trackers can be clipped onto clothes or shoes as well as sewn into clothes to keep track of those who are prone to wander. A list of these resources is provided at the bottom of this article.
– When you are calling 911, identify to the dispatcher that your child has Autism. Quickly informing them of special considerations (Can they respond to questions, combative, etc. ) will allow the dispatcher to direct the responders appropriately.
– Often the lights and sirens of emergency response vehicles can cause the person with ASD to experience a sensory overload. Be prepared for this by ensuring the person is in a safe place and has the necessary items needed to come back down to a safe space. Suggestions might be to have silencing headphones on hand or a soft blanket that can act as a soothing mechanism. If possible, request the emergency vehicle to “respond silent” or a “nonemergency response” when arriving at the residence due to medical concerns of the patient.
– Uniformed law enforcement officers need to be seen as safe people with whom the child or adult can interact or go with. Practicing this in advance by organizing a time to go to a police station and meeting the officers can be beneficial for the child to become more accustomed to the officers.
– There have been many stories of teenagers and adults with ASD having negative interactions with police officers due to misunderstandings and miscommunications. Denny Debbaudt, a leader in the field, recommends having an “Autism information card” that is laminated and covers the following essential pieces of information that could explain some of these common misunderstandings:
o I have Autism Spectrum Disorder
o I will be anxious in new situations or with new people
o I may be confused by standard interview or interrogation techniques and produce a misleading statement or false confession
o I may not fully understand the consequences of my actions.
o Please contact a professional who is familiar with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Call the following professional:_________________
– Practice fire drills ahead of time with your entire family. Identify a space place far away from the house and refer to it frequently as a safe zone for the child. This is important for all children, but especially the child with Autism. Death and injury have been reported after children were rescued due to the child running back in the house seeking familiar surroundings.
– Be aware that in a fire, children will often find small spaces to hide because of being overwhelmed by the sights and sounds. Identify these areas ahead of time so in the case of emergency you are familiar with where they might hide.
– Due to the nature of the fire fighter’s gear, children are often intimidated or scared because of the lack of facial expression and “human” contact. Like with police officers, it can be beneficial for children to have previously visited a fire station and have interacted with firefighters on a personal level. Using visual cards with pictures of the fire fighters in gear and teaching identification terms “This is a fire fighter. They are people who help keep you safe” can also contribute to familiarize the child with the uniform.
Emergency Medical Services
– Teach your child that EMS providers are safe through interaction and role play scenarios. If the child has previously received training in how to protect themselves against sexual predators (ex: don’t allow a stranger to take off your clothes), then they might be unwilling or combative when an EMS provider is administering care.
– Role play simple medical procedures with the child if possible. Examples of this would be: using a toy stethoscope at home to check their heartbeat, breathing, or using a popsicle stick to check in their mouth and ears, etc. This allows the child to become accustomed to routines that might be otherwise strange or disconcerting. Use praise and positive reinforcement throughout this role playing to encourage appropriate behavior.
If you are interested in having a staff member come to your fire department, police station, or emergency medical services facility and present on how to interact with those on the autism spectrum during emergency situations, contact Nichole O’Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
This training will focus on the emergency responders side of treatment and interaction with the individual.
Denny Debbaudt – leader in educating first responders in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism Speaks – provides several articles and list of resources that goes further in depth about this topic
Including Kids – provides full and part time ABA programming for children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as afterschool groups, adult seminars, and free workshops and events
Alyssa R. Webb-McCune is a graduate student at Sam Houston State University in their Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program and works at Including Kids as a Focused Intervention Specialist. She has five years of experience working with students with disabilities and two years of experience working with adults with autism. She is active in research and focused on developing new ways to support clients in reaching their highest level of success.