Autism Conference III (August 26-27)
Bill Long 9/4/06
Emergency Responders and the Autistic Spectrum
On Saturday afternoon we discussed two topics: understanding autism-related outbursts and providing autism training for emergency responders. The cast of presenters now included Walter Coles, a former RCMP agent who had developed effective interview techniques to assist autistic victims of sexual assault, as well as Judge Kim Taylor, a Superior Court judge in North Carolina with an autistic son (19 years-old) and a commitment to bringing knowledge of autism to the legal community in NC. Though the first discussion focused primarily on technologies that might be helpful in restraining/protecting autistic people, we also were introduced, through video clips, to two autistic individuals whose cases attracted national or regional attention.
The case of Sidney Templeton in NC is a tragic one. In June 2004 this 44 year-old man with autism, who was circling the car of his new home health care aide in an apparently threatening manner, was subdued by police, placed in restraints, and taken off to the Iredell County jail. While in police custody he died of asphyxiation. The autopsy showed that he had died choking on his own vomit. Templeton's death ignited a tremendous outburst of energy which Judge Taylor said actually brought people together rather than drove them apart. As a result the state of NC is developing a curriculum on autism to be used with first responders.
Another video we watched was a segment from a tv-news documentary program about the case of Michael Fitzpatrick of NY. He is autistic though is able to work as a custodian at a school district. He was arrested for bank robbery and supposedly confessed to the crime. The TV clip, sympathetic to the Fitzpatrick's, showed some of the pitfalls that a person with autism might face when encountering the legal system--especially, in this case, the tendency to confess to a crime in order to appear to be "cooperative" with law enforcement officials.
Tips for de-escalation of situations with persons with autism were provided. A first responder should look for outward behavior that is seemingly out-of-the-ordinary or strange. The person who may be autistic then should be moved, if possible, to a quiet place. The basic principle in dealing with a person with autism is that s/he will become calm only if calmness surrounds him. That is, calm produces calm, even if it might take a while for the calmness of the care provider to "sink in" or, alternatively said, for the person with autism to go through the anxiety/rigidity/oppositional phase.
Fire or Emergency Responders
The late afternoon session dealt with autism training for fire and rescue people. A few speakers detailed the way that first responders might have to deal with situations in an emergency way that would upset people with autism. Some rescue tips presented to us were:
1. A forced entry into a home was likely.
2. Be aware that many homes with autistic chiildren have locks on inside doors, to keep the autistic child from wandering into other spaces.
3. Plexiglass may be on the windows of the autistic child's room. In fact, it may look as if the autistic child is being isolated in such a way as almost to constitute negligent parenting, but parents of autistic children say that they simply must isolate their child at times, in order to get some rest and in order to protect the child. Plexiglass is used because autistic children often try to escape, and glass windows can't keep them "in." In addition, some autistic children love to hear the sound of glass breaking.
4. Fences may have locked gates.
5. Develop 911 systems that allow a first responder quickly to "size up" the situation. For example, parents should give information to 911 and other emergency responders in town so that they know that an autistic child lives there.
6. Autistic adults and children are likely to hide when emergency personnel arrive.
7. To move a person quickly, you may need to wrap him in blankets and press him in such a way to keep him from thrashing.
Emergency Nurse Mary Weisenfeld, who happened to be Dennis Debbaudt's sister (Dennis saved his brother for the Sunday afternoon program!), spoke of the ways that emergency rooms were already equipped with the kind of facilities to lessen the sensory overload experienced by autistic persons. She also mentioned the importance of emergency room personnel giving a person with autism "space," as much as possible, until s/he has calmed down.
Dennis is currently cutting another video with the fire personnel, Ralph Carrasquillo and Bill Cannatta. Both of these men have autistic sons, and Bill is using his son in the movie on a rescue situation from a burning house. Though the "voice overs" and other things have not been added to the film, I think it will be an effective training tool for first responders.
The final essay deals with issues presented on Sunday, August 27.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long