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Advisory: 10 Points First Responders Should Know About Autism Spectrum Disorder


Randolph, Mass. — If you are a police office, firefighter, or an emergency medical technician, it is likely that at some point during your career you will encounter a child, adolescent, or adult  with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You will be better able to help this person if you have some basic information about ASD and how individuals on the spectrum may react in a crisis situation.

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Below are some important facts that all first responders should know about ASD:
1] ASD is a developmental disability that typically appears during the early years of life. It is a neurological disorder that affects the development of the brain. Characteristics include communication impairments, social skills deficits, and restrictive interests/repetitive behaviors or interests.
Although one specific cause of ASD is not known, current research links autism to biological or neurological differences in the brain. Autism is believed to have a genetic basis, although no single gene has been directly linked to the disorder. Researchers are using advanced brain-imaging technology to examine factors that may contribute to the development of autism.
2] Some individuals with ASD are non-verbal or only repeat what is said to them. Instead of talking, they may communicate with sign language, picture cards, communication devices, or gestures/pointing.
3] Those individuals with ASD who are verbal may not have good receptive language — they may not understand what you are saying or the questions you are asking. Also, they may not be able to sustain a conversation or be able to successfully convey their thoughts, feelings, or experiences.
4] Individuals with ASD may appear to be poor listeners — they may not seem to listen to what you say, make eye contact, or understand gestures, personal space, body language, or facial expressions.
5] Many young individuals with ASD do not have a social awareness of others. They may be oblivious to other children, have no concept of the needs of others, or not notice another person’s distress.
6] Some individuals with ASD can be aggressive with others, or hurt themselves. These behaviors may be their way of communicating their needs to others. If these individuals are confronted by a first responder they don’t know, they may become aggressive. This is not because they want to hurt someone, but is a way of saying, “Leave me alone.” They might hit themselves on the head repeatedly because they are scared or physically uncomfortable, not because they want to hurt themselves.
7] It is possible that these children have never had contact with police, firefighters, or EMS workers. They may not recognize the vehicles or the uniforms. They may not understand who you are or what you do.
8] Many individuals with ASD have sensory issues, such as sensitivities to loud noises or bright lights. The lights and sirens that may be fun for “typical” children may be very overwhelming for children with autism. They may cover their ears or eyes, throw tantrums, or run away.
9] Many individuals with ASD exhibit odd, awkward movements with their hands, head, or objects; this is called “stereotypic” behavior. As long as these behaviors are not hurting others, allow people with autism to engage in them, as they may be calming.
10] When talking to an individual with ASD, speak clearly and use concise, short phrases or sentences and a calm tone. Allow for a delayed response because it may take the person a few moments to begin understanding what you have said. Repeat or rephrase if you feel s/he did not understand you. The person may not understand gestures. Avoid sarcasm and humorous statements; most people will ASD will not understand them. And remember to be patient — people with ASD really do want things to get better.
Facts about ASD:
?? occurs in one in every 68 births
?? is more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined
?? occurs in all races, ethnicities, and social groups
?? currently has no known cause or cure
?? effective treatments are available for children, adolescents, and adults on the autism spectrum
?? early intervention services are critical to a child’s long-term success
Additional resources include:
?? National Autism Center at May Institute @
?? Autism Society of America @
?? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention @ [key word “autism]
May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 60 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury, and behavioral health needs. The organization provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral healthcare services to individuals, as well as training and consultation services to professionals, organizations, and public school systems. At more than 140 service locations across the country, highly trained staff work to create new and more effective ways to meet the special needs of individuals and families across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit

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