Firefighter father of child with autism innovates training for first responders

North Vancouver first responders are getting innovative training to help them read the signs of autism when dealing with people in crisis situations.

'There is a bit of a gap of information [with first responders],' Capt. Ben Wilson

The flashing lights and sceaming sirens of police and fire emergency vehicles can send a person with autism into a panic. (Lindsay Turner/Flickr)

North Vancouver first responders are getting innovative training to help them read the signs of autism when dealing with people in crisis situations.

The training came from a push from one of their own, a firefighter whose toddler was diagnosed as having autism. This experience helped his see the "gap" in first responder training around autism.

Ryan Yao of the Canucks Autism Network and Captain Ben Wilson of the District of North Vancouver Fire Rescue Service developed autism training and offer free sessions to first responders. (Charlie Cho/CBC)

"We had the firefighters sharing stories from years back about incidents that they went to where kind of the light bulb turned on .. oh I think that call 5 years ago that individual might have had autism," said Capt. Ben Wilson of the District of North Vancouver Fire Rescue Service.

"What we learned is had they had the training at this time, by their own admission, the calls would have gone drastically different and would have had a much more positive and successful outcome."

The training Wilson helped develop focuses on teaching first responders to recognize social behaviours associated with autism or with people who are not "neuro-typical," Wilson said.

For many young children fire trucks and firefighters are a joy, but for some children with autism the lights, sirens and loud voices can trigger anxiety. (Upsilon Andromedae/Flickr)

People with autism can have a spectrum of responses to dangerous situations and to first responders themselves.

"One individual might be very hypersensitive to the lights and sirens. Another individual might be very attracted to the lights and sirens or the fire, which can be very dangerous," said Ryan Yao of the Canucks Autism Network, describing unique traits seen in individuals with autism. 

Better training can help emergency responders clue in to the signs and perhaps approach a situation differently.

Ideally the first responder is given information from a caregiver, or somebody who knows the individual.

But that can't always happen in a crisis.

First responders are getting more training in how to deal with autism as more and more children are being diagnosed according to the Centre for Disease Control. (Paurian/Flickr)

"It can definitely alter the outcome of a situation," said Wilson.

When asked why training has taken so long, Wilson said the rising numbers of children diagnosed with autism have helped drive awareness. One in 68 U.S. children is now diagnosed with autism according to the Centre for Disease Control.

A few key training points:

  • Take your time
  • Be thoughtful
  • Be aware of limitations and the need for personal space
  • People with autism are often prone to wandering, and fascinated by water
  • A majority of accidental deaths involving people with autism involve drowning
  • Remember 1 in 68 kids are being diagnosed with autism today 
  • collaboration with parents or caregivers is key
The development of new first responder training in North Vancouver came from a firefighter whose toddler was diagnosed with autism. (J Aaron Farr/Flickr)

With files from Catherine Rolfson. Charlie Cho