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Portrait of an adult outdoors who is on the autism spectrum.

Responding to Incidents Involving Individuals With Autism

Posted: May 17, 2024

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It is essential for first responders to learn how to assist people with autism in high-stress situations, prioritizing safety for all involved.

Autism

Autism, a spectrum disorder, is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others and can cause problems in social interaction and communication. People with autism may have difficulty understanding and interpreting social cues, exhibit sensory overwhelm and sensitivities, and have unique ways of processing information.

With 1 in 36 children in the U.S. diagnosed with autism, encountering such individuals is inevitable for first responders.

Guidance for first responders

For individuals with autism, allowing extra time for processing information is crucial.

  • Maintain empathy and avoid judgmental statements, especially during meltdowns or outbursts.
  • Establish rapport by engaging with the individual's special interests.
  • When communicating, use clear language and avoid idioms. Utilize simple words or visual aids and explain procedures even to nonverbal individuals.
  • Be mindful of sensory stimuli and minimize overwhelm by reducing unnecessary stimuli and using sensory-friendly items.
  • Prioritize safety, knowing when to retreat from escalating situations and when verbal de-escalation is appropriate.

Resources for first responders

Kevin and Avonte’s Law (named to honor the memory of Kevin Wills and Avonte Oquendo, 2 boys with autism who tragically perished after wandering away from supervised settings) will allow for the expansion of training for first responders and caregivers. It also provides the foundation for the International Association of Chiefs of Police Home Safe program, which released a suite of resources in September 2023 for first responders:

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