Wednesday Central Texas first responders learned how to better support those with autism during emergencies.
Critical incidents where police, fire and EMS are needed are difficult for anyone to process. For those who have autism, it is all the more traumatic. Their response can be confusing for those who do not understand the disorder.
Pensacola police officer Jimmy Donohoe and former Westwood, Massachusetts firefighter Bill Cannata traveled to Austin to speak to Central Texas first responders about autism.
They are instructors for the Autism Society's Safe and Sound Initiative. They also have autistic children.
The men are sharing experiences in their home and professional lives to improve communication among first responders and autistic people in critical situations.
"What can happen with our guys is they don't understand emergency situation so they may act with aggression, may not want to be rescued. They have sensory issues. They don't want to be touched," said Cannata.
Suzanna Potts, executive director of the Autism Society of Central Texas and parent of an autistic child, says misunderstandings are leading to unnecessary arrests.
"We have had many families with autism, particularly young adults, and adult community who have had poor experiences because there was a communication delay or anxiety or elopement issues. So, that can present a challenge for our families and people are nervous," said Potts.
Potts points to an incident involving a 24-year-old autistic man earlier this year. Potts says he left a group home, knocked on doors across the street and then kicked in the door of a neighbor's door. The homeowner, fearing for his life, fatally shot the man.
While the incident did not involve first responders, Potts feels it does show a lack of education about the disorder. With an estimated 300,000 autistic people in Texas, she feels the training is critical.
"For my son, for example, communication is very difficult. And so he doesn't always respond the first time you ask his name. So for him, he would have a delayed response. For them to take the time to ask the question again, check for understanding and not to touch him," said Potts.
APD Corporal David Rhodes elected to attend. He, like the other first responders in the room, will take what they've learned back to their co-workers so that even more will be prepared for future calls.
"They're just people. They want to be as much like you and I as they can be. To me any training I can get like this is good for me," said Rhodes.
Some law enforcement agencies have a 9-1-1 autism registry. It alerts the first responders before arrival. Cedar Park has the Smart 9-1-1 system for instance. To sign up click here