Recognizing autism a priority for 1st responders

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Ted Cannata’s picture flashed on the screen at Faith West, showing a normal-looking, 22-year-old man with piercing blue eyes. He could be any kid on the Purdue University campus.

“That’s my guy,” Ted’s dad, Bill Cannata, proudly announced to a room filled with firefighters, paramedics, police officers and social workers.

But a video exposes him for what he is — profoundly autistic.

In the video, Ted paces, grunts and squeals, flapping his wrists so violently the cracking sound of ligaments and bones can be heard. This unsettling behavior is how Ted calms himself, Cannata explained to first responders attending his training session on how to interact with autistic people.

Most of those who attended the training will respond one day to a call in which an autistic person needs help. Many already have.

“They’re doing repetitive actions to calm themselves down,” said Cannata, a retired firefighter from Westwood, Mass., who now trains first responders to help those afflicted with this developmental disability. “That’s pretty important that we let them do that, because if we restrain somebody who’s trying to calm themselves down, it’s only going to escalate the situation.”

Talking to or asking questions of a severely autistic person, such as Ted, is not going to end well either, so firefighters, paramedics or police using such tactics — typical standard procedures in emergency responses — soon will be on the receiving end of an out-of-control autistic person’s rage. To illustrate autistic behavior, Cannata several times referred to the movie “Rain Man.” Actor Dustin Hoffman’s character was an autistic person prone to fits of rage when his structured routine is upended.

“Ted is nonverbal. He can’t speak a word,” Cannata said. “If you try to interact with him, he’s not going to respond to you. If you keep trying to work with him, he’s going to push you away. He doesn’t like people in his personal space. And if you continue to try to work with him, he’s probably going to get mad. … At first, he will try to push you and pinch you, and if you still continue to work with him, he will bite you. … He’s already sent four people to the emergency room with bite wounds.

“It’s just because you’re trying to interact with him.”

How, Cannata asked, do firefighters, police, paramedics or social workers rescue or interact with a person afflicted with this disability — one whose cause still is unknown and, he said, afflicts around 1 of every 100 babies born today.

The Journal & Courier reports (http://on.jconline.com/1drc7P4 ) that higher-performing autistic people might not even be recognizable. Asperger syndrome, for example, is common, and those who have that mild form of autism generally function normally because they learned to adapt to social situations.

Some people with moderate forms of autism repeat every question asked of them. If police officers, for example, don’t recognize an autistic person’s behavior, they’re likely to mistake such parroting as mockery, or intoxication from drugs or alcohol.

“Can you tell me what your name is? Do you have any ID?” Benton County Sheriff’s Capt. Don Munson said when asked how a typical encounter with a person might begin.

Cannata mimics Munson’s questions, illustrating how the autistic person’s response might be perceived as insolent. If the officer doesn’t recognize the signs of autism, the encounter is going to quickly head south.

Munson said he generally recognizes autistic symptoms.

“When they just repeat what you say or look at you and don’t answer, you get the sense that they’re just being difficult, so you just have to pay attention,” Munson said.

West Lafayette Fire Chief Tim Heath and his wife, Paige, know firsthand about autism. Heath’s 18-year-old son — Paige’s stepson — is profoundly autistic, and when Tim Heath learned of Cannata’s training through the Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition, Heath asked Cannata to put on an areawide training session.

“One of the things I don’t want to see anymore is … autistic children tazed because someone doesn’t understand what their situation is,” Heath said, noting that an Internet search reveals such videos. “It’s not happening here, but around the country, it has happened.

“Somebody doesn’t understand. They think they might be on drugs or whatever, when in reality, they were an autistic person who just needed help and couldn’t control their situation.”

The flashing lights on fire trucks, ambulances and police cars, as well as sirens and air horns, generally inflict pain on autistic people, sending them running away or setting them off into a fit, Cannata said.

Making matters worse, a light touch causes physical pain to many autistic people. How does one rescue an autistic person from a fire or dangerous scene without touching them?

The Heaths’ son, Alex, grew up around firefighters and police officers, so he responds differently.

“He grew up at the firehouse, so he’s comfortable with the fire trucks,” Paige said, describing Alex as one who runs to fire trucks. “Most autistic kids get overstimulated with the sights and sounds. Not Alex, because he’s been around it all his life.”

Like Ted, Alex has his ticks. Whereas Ted is a wrist flapper, Alex calms himself by rocking forward and backward.

“He’s recognizable,” Paige said. “He’s a rocker. He’s vocal, even though he’s not verbal.”

Most profoundly autistic people are social only with people they know, which makes it difficult for rescues in an emergency. But if autistic people frequently meet police and firefighters in a safe environment, Cannata said they will recognize the uniforms of their rescuers as someone they can trust. That outreach is part of the message in his training.

Cannata notes that the training deals only with common responses from autistic people. Every person — even autistic people — responds differently, he said.

“Again, he’s atypical for an autistic child. He’s really social,” Paige Heath said, noting that Alex can say only about 15 words. “He loves to shake hands and say ‘Hi.’ Hi is one of his words. He loves to meet new people.

“He doesn’t mind being touched, which again, is atypical.”

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Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Journal & Courier

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