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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Firefighters and Autism

Previous posts have dealt with the often-troubled interactions between police officers and people with autism. But other first responders also need to be aware of autism. Fire Captain John M. Sokol writes to his colleagues:

A first responder is seven times more likely to come in contact with an individual with autism than the average person. If you haven't already met someone with autism, you soon will.


When you are first made aware a situation involves an individual with autism, first and foremost, when possible arrive on scene without the use of sirens or flashing lights.

Sound and light sensitivity is common in autism and may trigger a seizure or cause the individual to shut down or hide, making the situation worse.

Next, there are key questions you should ask a parent or caregiver ranging from, "Is the individual verbal or non-verbal? How does the individual react under stress? What usually works to calm them down?" Knowing the answers can save you valuable time by letting you know what to expect and what approach to take.

Both children and adults with autism are likely to hide in a fire situation. Your search should include any tight, out-of-the way place you would least expect to find someone.

Upon finding the individual the first responder should speak slowly, with clear directions and not with force, which could cause the individual to possibly shut down further.

Please bring the proper tools for the situation. Forced entry or exit will be most likely. Families often need to lock doors, including interior doors, to keep individuals with autism from wandering. Barred, nailed or locked windows along with Plexiglas or Lexan windows can make access or escape a problem for rescues.

Some individuals with autism may be sensitive to touch, while others do not have a normal range of sensations and may not feel the cold, heat or pain in a typical manner.


Don't let individuals with autism out of your sight — they may be a bolt risk after rescue. Someone must stay with the individual at all times as, not comprehending danger, the individual may run out into traffic or back into a place they were just rescued from.

Needless to say, these cautions do not apply to all ASD people. Not all have seizures. Many are highly verbal and are not at risk for bolting.