Staff from eight area fire departments, as well as deputies from the Daviess County Sheriff’s Office participated in two autism awareness training classes Monday. Members from each agency listened as professionals taught first responders how to better serve community members on the autism spectrum, as well as their families.
Kentucky Autism Training Center (KATC) Family Field Training Coordinator Heidi Cooley-Cook traveled from Louisville to the Airport Sorgho Fire Department to lead one of the training courses. Cooley-Cook said this seminar was her organization’s second trip to Owensboro to lead Autism Awareness training to first responders.
“Daviess County was one of the first groups we did this training with, in 2017,” she said.
According to Cooley-Cook, the importance of teaching this training to members of law enforcement and first responders stems from some alarming statistics. She said 49 percent of those with autism will wander away during their lives, and over 70 percent of those wandering, die from walking into bodies of water and drowning.
“We want to make sure people know those statistics,” Cooley-Cook said. “The day-to-day interactions first responders may have with someone on the autism spectrum, ranging in events from simple traffic stops to emergency situations, can be more easily dealt with if they undergo this type of training.”
The classes focus on looking at the different characterizations of those with autism, implementing strategies for interaction and engagement with the autistic community and training first responders to use the resources available to them to gain a better understanding of autism.
“We talked about this yesterday, maybe setting up a meet-and-greet with autistic individuals across the lifespan, from kids to adults, with law enforcement,” she said. “It’d be something informal, maybe held at the library.”
Cooley-Cook brought up what she called a great resource for local law enforcement called Project Lifesaver — a type of tracking system that allows first responders to track those who’ve wandered away.
Through Project Lifesaver, individuals with autism can obtain radio frequency devices, normally in the form of bracelets, from their local fire department. Fire department staff are trained to track these individuals through their bracelet should they wander away.
DCFD Lieutenant Steve Szefi attended the training, calling it a much-needed resource for first responders.
“The best thing I got out of it was learning how to communicate with someone with autism,” Szefi said. “I wouldn’t have known or realized how to do that if I hadn’t attended that training.”
In emergency situations, those on the autism spectrum often have difficulty with verbal communication, Cooley-Cook said, and they tend to use body language to communicate when in high-stress situations.
“We learned about the physical signs to look for, like if they take their hand and hit on that area or bite on that area, that’s their way of telling us where it hurts,” Szefi said. “It’s just a different situation to handle. It’s a different ballgame.”
Szefi said police would benefit from the training because of some of the language and behavior barriers that law enforcement may encounter when approaching an individual with autism.
“[Those with autism] are often non-compliant and officers might handle that differently than they should, if they aren’t aware of what the situation is,” Szefi said. “I think it’s a good class for everyone in public service. There was a lot of good information that came out of it.”