Members of the province's autism society are teaching first responders how to recognize and help people with autism during an emergency.

Treshana Gosse, a regional assistant manager with the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, says ambulance workers, firefighters, and police officers, are coming to the society with questions about the condition.

Gosse says there is no obvious way to identify someone with autism but she says autism can influence how people behave in a crisis.

"Autism doesn't have a look. We stress that. However, some of the behaviours of autism do have a look," said Gosse.

She says people with autism often perceive a crisis differently than other people.

Reducing sensory overload

"Most of us who were in a burning building or a car crash would want to get out of that situation as fast as possible," said Gosse.

"But for a person on the autism spectrum it is highly possible that because of a sensory overload coming from the rescue vehicle or coming from the rescuers themselves, they may run in the opposite direction." 

Treshona Gosse

Treshana Gosse is with the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador.

First responders dealing with a highway accident are taught to think about ways to reduce sensory overload.

"Can you turn off the sirens? Can you find a more quiet space? Can you use something as simple as a blanket to reduce the visual or the auditory overload?" 

The Autism Society's sessions also teach first responders that in a missing person case, a person with autism may behave differently than other people.

"We can assume that a typical person will want to be rescued or will respond to their name but a person with autism may not want to come when they are called and they may not recognize that they are lost and they may keep going," said Gosse.

'Inside, behind and under'

She said that in the case of a fire rescue, the society speaks with first responders about "inside, behind and under" 

'I will talk about individuals with autism hiding inside of boxes, behind water heaters, under beds.'
- Treshana Gosse, Autism Society 

"I will talk about individuals with autism hiding inside of boxes, behind water heaters, under beds. Those sorts of things that [first responders] might not have thought about before," she said.

The society says it's encouraged by the response it's getting from the professional development sessions it has been holding across the province with first responders.

"Over the last five years I've seen an overwhelming response of individuals saying 'I didn't know.' They give us very positive feedback and say that it has changed their mind set about how they will deal with an emergency and that's the ultimate goal," said.Gosse.

She said the family members of people with autism can play a role too.

"We tell them to be proactive about introducing their children and adults on a regular basis to police officers, paramedics, or firefighters because we want to keep that level of comfort open for a person with autism if they have contact with a first responder in a crisis situation."