Papillion firefighters train to respond to calls involving people with autism

First responders with the Papillion Fire Department received training Wednesday on how to better understand people with autism.
Published: Nov. 1, 2023 at 5:44 PM CDT
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PAPILLION, Neb. (WOWT) - Papillion firefighters started their training Wednesday morning learning what not to do.

In 2017, a Buckeye, Arizona police officer confronted a teenage boy with autism. He ended up tackling him, and the boy sustained cuts, bruises, and an ankle injury that needed surgery. The officer claims he thought the boy was using drugs.

After showing the video Autism Action Partnership (AAP) based in Omaha encouraged metro responders to add one question to their routine: “Could it be autism?”

“You have the training to come on scene and you ask all sorts of questions to evaluate what kind of situation you’re dealing with. Where’s the danger? What do I need to do first? If we just add, ‘Could it be autism?’ to that list of questions, it’s really going to reframe the way you might approach a situation,” said Michaela Ahrens with AAP.

Throughout the month, AAP is working to help first responders improve their understanding of autism in hopes of helping those on the spectrum in an emergency safely and smoothly.

During the training, the group did interactive exercises to get a better understanding of autism. Aherns had them complete complex tasks while blaring a siren to simulate an emergency situation.

“It can be chaotic,” she said.

The exercises pushed the first responders to consider how emergency situations may further stress those with autism.

“We need to make sure that they feel comfortable with us,” said Battalion Chief Bob Engberg with Papillion Fire Department. “For that to happen, we have to have this training so we know what the patient’s thought process is.”

A person with autism may not respond to verbal commands, may not recognize danger, and behave in ways that don’t follow social norms, according to AAP.

Responders learned what they could do: talk slowly and calmly; keep directions simple; and physically show them what needed to be done.

The training covered scenarios too.

“Anything that you can find to connect with her. If you can’t see it or recognize it, maybe you get that information from Mom too,” said Ahrens.

“The biggest takeaway is to do whatever we can to keep them calm and to be on their level to try to understand what they’re thinking so we can just respond better and make it better for them,” said Engberg.

At the end of the training, first responders left the station ready to better serve their communities and everyone in them.