Interacting with Individuals with Autism During Emergencies

Know the signs of a person with ASD and how you can effectively respond to them.

Emergency situations are frightening and stressful for everyone involved, but they become even more complex when an individual with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is present. In these situations, it is crucial for campus safety personnel and law enforcement to have proper training on how to identify, understand and interact with individuals with ASD because behaviors commonly associated with ASD can be easily misinterpreted. 

ASD is defined as a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by deficits in social communication and interaction, in addition to restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. The presentation and severity of symptoms vary for each individual with ASD.  The disorder cannot be identified based on physical appearance, so close attention must be paid to behaviors. Individuals with ASD may struggle to communicate, make appropriate eye contact or respond to someone calling their name, which is why training for safety personnel is so important. 

Educating first responders, campus security and police officers, and hospital personnel to recognize the signs of ASD and react accordingly is vital to minimize risk during emergency situations for all individuals involved. Parents and professionals agree that safety is a huge concern for this population, as individuals with ASD may be easily distracted, become lost or even elope from their surroundings. By increasing autism awareness, safety personnel will be more mindful of individuals with special needs during emergencies.   

The information below is not meant to replace training on this topic but will help provide an overview of key points.

How to Identify Individuals with ASD
Individuals with ASD may present the following characteristics and behaviors. It is important to not immediately interpret these behaviors as a lack of cooperation.

     

  • 1. May have limited or no eye contact or may actively avoid eye contact
  • 2. May have difficulty following verbal instructions
  • 3. May need extra response time to process what is being asked
  • 4. May repeat sounds, words or phrases out of context in a repetitive manner
  • 5. May be very sensitive to noises, lights or touch
  • 6. May engage in repetitive motor behaviors, such as rocking, hand flapping, etc.
  • 7. May be resistant to changes from normal routine

Be Prepared to Address Deficits in Communication
Individuals with ASD may have very limited verbal speech or may be completely non-vocal, relying on alternative forms of communication, such as an iPad, iconic communication book or sign language. They may also have difficulty understanding and processing verbal instructions.

For example, they may not understand concepts, such as “now,” “immediately,” “emergency,” “danger” or “illegal.”  These deficits are shown in the following examples:

  • When asked, “What’s your name?” Julie says, “Name.”
  • When asked several questions in quick succession, “What’s your name? Do you know where your mom is? Where do you live, son?” James is not able to process the information fast enough to respond and begins to cry.
  • Even though there is a scary scene all around, Jose continues to talk about prehistoric life on earth, seemingly unaware of the dangers.

Social Interaction May Pose Challenges
Individuals with ASD may have trouble initiating or appropriately responding to social interactions; struggle using or understanding facial expressions or body language; have difficulty identifying and regulating emotions; lack awareness of accepted or appropriate social norms, boundaries or rules; and have limited awareness of basic safety skills. Examples of social interaction deficits are shown in the following scenarios:

  • When approached by another person, Nadia does not respond or acknowledge the person in any way.
  • When told, “Look up here,” Jason looks down to the ground, shifting his eyes and avoiding eye contact.
  • Michael approaches unfamiliar people and asks personal or inappropriate questions, such as, “What car do you drive?” or “Do you want to come to my house?”
  • In the middle of an adult conversation, Maria interrupts and does not respond to requests to wait or leave.

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