'Thinking Differently': How One County Teaches First Responders About Autism

People on the autism spectrum often have heightened sensitivity to noise, meaning a smoke alarm or a loud knock on the door can trigger extreme emotions.

People on the autism spectrum often have heightened sensitivity to noise, meaning a smoke alarm or a loud knock on the door can trigger extreme emotions. Shutterstock

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The training program in Dutchess County, New York is part of a larger county initiative aimed at improving life for people with special needs.

For people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, a blaring smoke alarm, hulking fireman or a police officer knocking loudly at the door can trigger additional panic or fear when an emergency is happening.

In Dutchess County, New York, an ongoing autism awareness training program provided by the county aims to better equip first responders to handle issues like these.

The training is part of the county's larger ‘ThinkDIFFERENTLY’ initiative that encourages businesses, county agencies and government organizations to embrace inclusive practices that make life easier for residents with special needs. It's designed to teach first responders how to react to and de-escalate tense situations.

"Our goal isn’t to make this population feel like you’re a burden to us," said Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro. "We want to make sure we’re reacting appropriately, so you get the same level of service and treatment as anyone else.” 

The training, currently in its fourth year, begins by teaching first responders (paramedics, fire fighters, even employees from private security firms) the characteristics and behaviors of people on the autism spectrum and how to make in-roads with families in the community.

“They’re also trained on specific tactics and rescue techniques, especially how to communicate and interact,” Molinaro said. “If you don’t know how to communicate effectively, you may escalate the situation, and the individual you’re trying to assist can shut down or become aggressive. The goal is to de-escalate, communicate, and unlock the information that we both need.”

The workshop isn't mandatory, but it's been integrated into the county's regular training for first responders, including career and volunteer fire companies. About 600 first responders have taken the course thus far.

The county recently expanded the training to include family members of people with autism. The first few sessions were somewhat sparsely attended by those community members, which allowed for in-depth conversations and questions between the two groups. The county plans to expand those sessions in the future, Molinaro said.

“What we heard is that one of the bigger concerns for families is just knowing that the officers are trained. It’s one less thing they have to worry about,” Molinaro said. “So the fact that we do this, in and of itself, provides a degree of relief.”

The training and its larger initiative were sparked by Molinaro’s experiences with his daughter, who is on the autism spectrum and has a seizure disorder. The larger goal of both, he said, is to eliminate roadblocks for individuals with special needs and allow their families to participate fully in the community without taking on additional worry.

“There’s an effort to just build that mentality into what we do and how we live,” he said. “We don’t get it right every time, but we try to, and we’re always learning. I think that’s a powerful message to send. Ultimately it isn’t about a program and it isn’t about a training, it’s about seeing the value of every life.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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