Emergency responders undergo training for understanding autism


BENNINGTON -- More than 90 first responders from Bennington County and Winhall sheriff's departments, Bennington Fire and Police departments and members of the United Counseling Service attended training Thursday to understand how to handle individuals with autism spectrum disorders in a correct manner.

The training came toward the end of April, which is National Autism Awareness Month. Autism spectrum disorders are a range of developmental neurological disorders that can cause problems with an individual's thinking, feeling and the ability to relate to others, according to the American Psychological Association.

Autism now affects one in 88 children and one in 54 boys, according to the National Autism Association. Autism diagnoses are steadily rising.

Adults and children with autism can pose a challenge to the duties of a first responder. "A lot of the people who are on the high end of the spectrum may appear like everyone else until something stressful happens," said paramedic Jason Dorval of the Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition. "Then you (may) see a lot of aggressive, self-stimulating and unsafe behaviors a lot of time they don't understand the complexities of an incident," he said.

ALEC consists of a group of firefighters, paramedics and police officers who have been directly affected by autism in their family or otherwise. Based out of Westwood, Mass., ALEC provides free training to first responders throughout Massachusetts. With the boost of a community grant, Dorval and his colleagues travel across the U.S. to foster a deeper understanding of autism among public safety and law enforcement personnel

Thursday's training at the Bennington Fire Facility, 130 River St., was split into an afternoon and evening session so that all responders could attend while they were off duty. Dorval went over what autism is and how to recognize it for the first hour of each session. Then he spoke into specific tactics on how to work with those individuals' safety needs, fire safety needs and medical needs.

Dorval said the hardest thing for a responder is recognizing somebody with a disorder. "We teach parents that they need to tell responders right away if their child has autism or some other type of disability. We teach responders to ask questions so that they have an idea before the interaction even happens," he said.

ALEC also works with parents and individuals with autism. "We teach people with higher functioning forms of autism to carry some form of identification so they can show it to the responder, because at least 50 percent of individuals with autism are non-verbal when in a stressful event," Dorval said.

For the responder, it is a matter of recognizing the difference between autism and non compliance. Dorval said it's important they understand the range of disorders, because if they don't there is a possibility that both the person with autism, whether an adult or a child, as well as the responder can get seriously injured.

"It's possible that the person could be frightened and without understanding the complexities of a situation could become aggressive," Dorval said. "(If the situation is not handled correctly), they could even attack the responder or run into traffic. We teach responders to keep those secondary tragedies from happening."

Dorval is a certified public fire and life safety educator and is the father of four children. His 12-year-old son, Connor has autism and Down syndrome. To learn more, or to contact Dorval, go to www.arcsouthnorfolk.org.


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