Papillion, Nebraska – The Papillion Fire Department, as part of their ongoing commitment to excellence in emergency services, initiated a unique training program on Wednesday morning. This new training is designed to equip first responders with the skills to better handle situations involving individuals with autism.
A distressing incident that happened in 2017 in Buckeye, Arizona, where a police officer mistakenly tackled a teenage boy with autism because he thought he was using drugs, served as the inspiration for this initiative. This encounter, which left the boy with significant injuries, highlighted the need for better awareness and understanding of autism in emergency situations.
Omaha’s Autism Action Partnership (AAP) has since urged metro responders to consider autism as a factor when assessing emergency scenarios, promoting a simple but potentially transformative question: “Could it be autism?” Michaela Ahrens from AAP emphasized the importance of this consideration, explaining that it can fundamentally alter the response approach, thereby enhancing the safety and wellbeing of individuals on the autism spectrum.
Throughout the training, firefighters engaged in interactive exercises to simulate the heightened sensory experience that individuals with autism might face during emergencies. Blaring sirens and the need to perform complex tasks amidst chaos offered a glimpse into the potential overstimulation and confusion faced by those with autism.
Battalion Chief Bob Engberg from the Papillion Fire Department underscored the importance of establishing comfort and trust with patients who have autism. Recognizing non-standard responses to verbal commands, insensitivity to danger, and atypical social behaviors is crucial. The training, therefore, emphasized adopting calm and clear communication, simplifying directions, and demonstrating actions rather than solely giving verbal orders.
Responders also went through a variety of scenarios where they learned how to connect with people who have autism by finding common ground or using information from family members. The overall aim is to maintain a calm environment and align with the thought processes of the individual to ensure a response that is both effective and empathetic.
“The biggest takeaway is to do whatever we can to keep them calm and to be on their level to try to understand what they’re thinking so we can just respond better and make it better for them,” Engberg stated.
By the end of the session, Papillion’s first responders were equipped not only with knowledge but also with the mindset to more effectively serve all members of their community, especially those who might experience the world a little differently. This training marks a step towards a more inclusive approach to emergency response, ensuring that all individuals, regardless of their place on the spectrum, receive the understanding and care they deserve in times of crisis.