First Responders Participate in Autism Awareness Training

Posted on Jun 28, 2017

Nearly 100 first responders from across the Tampa Bay area and central Florida participated in a full-day training on to enhance their skills out in the field and keep communities safer.

The event, held at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in cooperation with St. Petersburg College and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, focused on autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 68 individuals will be diagnosed with ASD. At some point in their career most law enforcement officers and other first responders will encounter someone on the spectrum, however autism may not be the first thought that comes to mind when they are answering a call.

“The goal for this training is to provide the tools necessary for first responders to effectively manage situations when a person with autism is involved,” said workshop leader Sergeant Dan McDonald, a 28-year law enforcement veteran with the Collier Country Sheriff’s Office. He is a father of three, including a 14-year-old son with ASD.  McDonald has been providing information to families and conducting first responder training since 2005.

The training was conducted in two sessions, the first of which focused on general information.  Participants had the chance to learn about what autism is, medical problems often associated with ASD and common indicators, particularly those that may be expressed during stressful situations. By gaining this information in an educational workshop setting instead of out in the field, first responders are more prepared to help the child and their families in the best possible ways.

Children with autism may have challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. To someone unfamiliar with autism, these behaviors may seem like the child is purposefully being troublesome.  When first responders know what signs to look for, they can adjust their strategy to gain control of the situation more quickly. These strategies can be as simple as rephrasing the way questions are asked.

The first session also covered how to identify community resources, including tools that are available to first responders and families, such as Project Lifesaver–a tracking band that is useful for children with ASD who often wander away from home or another area where they are supposed to be. For information on Project Lifesaver, contact your local sheriff’s office.

After a break for lunch, attendees were able to ask questions to a panel of parents and professionals, including staff from the Autism Center at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. They shared valuable insights on what it is like having a child with ASD and how first responders can provide assistance in times of crisis from the perspective of parent and health care provider.  

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