First responders get autism training

April 24, 2008 5:11:45 PM PDT
Raising awareness about autism means more than just diagnosing kids, and changing school schedules. It also means teaching others about the disorder. And in South Jersey, that includes first responders.

After introducing herself to the audience of firefighters and emergency medical technicians, Michelle Bourbon starts out her session, "I want to share with you how large and growing the autism population is, especially here in New Jersey."

Michelle knows what autism is like; her 7-year-old has with the developmental disorder.

Today, Bourbon, who forks for the Durand Academy, is also drawing on her days when she was a federal agent, training the Deptford Fire Company how to deal with autistic people.

A few members already have some experience.

Others will likely get it - first responders are 6 to 7 times more likely to come in contact with autistic people.

In fact, the Deptford Fire company has a special needs school, the Bank Bridge School, in its area.

Deptford Fire Chief Stephen Hubbs said his team wants to be ready. "Our guys would be one of the first to show up at that school to render medical aid, and we felt they should know what they might deal with."

Michelle says it is very easy for misunderstandings to arise. She cites one behavior as an example, "They may have difficulty with personal space. they may stand too close to you or too."

Bourbon says it's important for police, fire, and EMT crews to recognize the behaviors, and respond in a way that will keep everyone safe.

Michelle says, "The idea is to defuse a situation before it escalates out of control. An autistiic person can go from zero to aggressive in very little time."

She says there have been reports of encounters around the country that ended badly. "I have heard of instances where it took 4, or 5, or 6 officers to subdue an autistic teenager who went into a meltdown."

Company members say they learned a lot today, and feel better prepared.

Chief Hubbs says, "We don't want to put anyone in danger. We want to be there to help as best we can."

As the number of those diagnosed with autism grows, and as those people move into the teenage years, when their strength grows, Bourbon says the need for more first responders to be trained will grow.