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Staci Carr Ph.D. Candidate Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence. Understanding Autism: The Impact on Emergency Situations. Learning Objectives. Explore and learn common characteristics of individuals with ASD including: social, behavioral, and communication.
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Virginia Commonwealth University
Autism Center for Excellence
Primary and Secondary Characteristics
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
“If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.”
Respond to others
Eye gaze or gestures
Combine eye gaze and gesture
Share with others
Understanding non-verbal cues, gestures, eye-contact
Interpreting language literally
Social situations without guidelines
Overestimating their control and understanding due to their intelligence
Getting upset when they get upset
Getting offended with their social limitations
Overestimating their receptive language skills
Visual Supports – modify so they blend in (written format)
Providing ways to modulate sensory needs
Help them see others’ perspective
Plan and warn about transitions
Use special interests to motivate, but then move them on through those interests to other areas
Demonstrate the behavior you want the person to display (how you want them to sit, stand, lay, etc.)
A person with autism may not react well to changes in routine or the presence of strangers, even a uniformed responder. Be prepared to use short directions.
Officers should not interpret the person’s failure to respond to orders or questions as a lack of cooperation or a reason for increased force.
Ask parent or others at the scene about how to communicate with and deescalate the person’s behavior.
Avoid stopping repetitive behaviors unless there is risk of injury to yourself or others.
If person is holding and appears to be engaged with an inanimate object,
consider allowing individual to hold the item for the calming effect.
Evaluate for injury: person may not ask for help or show any indications of
pain, even though injury seems apparent.
Be aware that the person may be having a seizure (high incidence rate of
Be aware of person’s self-protective responses and sensitivities to even usual lights, sounds, touches, orders, and animals - canine or mounted patrol
If possible, turn off sirens and flashing lights and remove other sensory
stimulation from the scene (crowds, animals, etc.)
If person’s behavior escalates, use “geographic containment” and maintain a safe distance until any inappropriate behaviors lessen (Debbaudt & Legacy, 2005)
Stay alert to the possibility of outbursts or impulsive acts
Use your discretion. If you have determined that the person is unarmed and have established geographic containment, use all available time to allow the person to deescalate themselves without your intervention.
If in custody, alert jail authorities. Consider initial isolation facility. Person would be at risk in general prison population.
Each individual with autism is unique and may act or react differently. While these are helpful hints for interacting with individuals with ASD, they may not always work.