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Nac. firefighters receive training on dealing with special needs calls

Posted: Thursday, July 30, 2009 1:00 am | Updated: 2:08 pm, Tue Jun 4, 2013.

Windows nailed shut. Furniture in front of exits. Children locked in their rooms. Typically, these are major concerns for firefighters and possibly signs of abuse to the general public. But for some parents, they are basic steps to keep their children safe. This week, Nacogdoches firefighters received training on what to expect not only from individuals with autism but also from their homes. Autistic or developmentally delayed children will not recognize a firefighter, their vehicle, their badge or uniform, according to Josie Johnson, co-founder of The Helping House, a school for elementary aged children with autism or developmental delays. "They don't know that you're there to help them," Johnson told the emergency responders. "All they know is that your sirens are hurting their ears and your lights are hurting their eyes." Johnson, who has an autistic daughter named Madisan, has 15 years of teaching experience and a degree in interdisciplinary studies from SFA. She is currently teaching and working on a master's degree in special education. Autism, a disorder that is usually detected at an early age, affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others, according to the Autism Society of America Web site. The severity of the illness varies by individual, but some symptoms include lack of eye contact, lack of physical contact, repetitive speech, fixation on objects, hand flapping and rocking. People with autism are usually non-verbal, especially during high stress situations, Johnson said. She said a lot of times, after a car accident or other emergency situation, first responders might think the individual has a brain injury or is on some type of drug, which leads the responder to administer inappropriate treatments. Further, those with autism will not understand what is expected of them. "They're going to want to bolt," Johnson said. "That is the biggest thing with these kids, fight or flight." Autistic children will not understand verbal commands, such as "sit right here," but they also will not be able to communicate their inability to understand to those trying to help. Johnson asked firefighters the best ways to identify if autistic children or adults live in a home or might be traveling, taking into account that typical solutions can be complicated by the disorder. One idea common for people with illnesses or allergies is to wear a bracelet. But depending on the severity of their disorder, the individual may not be willing to wear the bracelet. One class suggested the person living or traveling with an autistic person wear the bracelet instead, identifying the person with autism. Although notes or records kept in a purse or glove box might give first responders further information, firefighters said it would not give them the information quickly enough to help, because looking in those places is sometimes the last thing they do. First responders might have to think outside the box when dealing with these individuals. "If you were to get the child out of the car in a car accident, you can't leave that child," Johnson said. A solution might be, if there are not enough personnel on scene, to place an autistic child in the back of a police car where the child could not get out or hurt themselves. "When you come to our home or (in the case of a )car accident, I want you to do whatever you need to do to keep our child safe," Johnson said. For homes, firefighters suggested contacting police or sheriff dispatch to show that an autistic child lives at that address. When dispatch sends first responders of any type, fire, EMS or police, they will alert the responders to the special situation. "My daughter is fascinated with fire," she said. "If there is a fire in our home, where is she gonna be? She's going to go to that fire." She explained that these children do not have fear. Madisan, who is 9, sometimes hides on top of the refrigerator. Johnson said when she finds her daughter and tells her to get down, Madisan likes to jump to her mother because she does not understand she can get hurt. "Some individuals with autism do not have a normal pain threshold." She told a story of her daughter standing too close to the tailpipe of their car, burning herself because she simply did not know she needed to move. Firefighters and first responders must also be prepared to make a forced entry at the homes of individuals with autism. "If you come to my home in a fire, you're going to have to force entry," Johnson said. "We have our (door) locked deadbolt with keys. The keys are hidden so Madisan can't find them." Johnson said to expect anything, from windows nailed shut to plexiglas windows to locks on gates or doors to bedrooms, kitchens or bathrooms. "Anything we do is to keep our children safe." Johnson precautionary advice is just as applicable to adults as children. "Adults with autism are just as likely to hide during a fire situation," Johnson said, adding firefighters must be aware of an autistic person's behavior for this reason. "She would see you and just look past you," Johnson said, referring to her daughter. "You (firefighters) could be standing on top of her and you wouldn't know it." When you need to move them, such as out of a burning home, move them quickly, she said. They will often thrash and be stronger than expected. Firefighters suggested a list of emergency contacts be kept visible in case one or both parents have to be transported to the hospital and a familiar adult is needed to calm and care for the autistic individual. Finally, Johnson said one of the most common calls emergency responders will receive for autistic individuals is when they have gone missing. Johnson said her daughter has gotten out of the house unsupervised before and she has had to jump into their pond or the neighbor's pool to get her out. Madisan can swim but may not understand to get out when she is tired. When an autistic person is missing, find out what they are fascinated with, Johnson suggested, and begin your search there. After Johnson's 30-minute presentation, firefighters visited The Helping House and met the children attending the summer program. They watched the children in their classrooms for a few minutes then showed them several of the fire trucks. With nine children enrolled, it is just a fraction of the 30 children Johnson said she knows of in Nacogdoches County diagnosed with the disorder. "I think that's a good thing for us (as) parents to be able to bring our children to the fire station and let them look at the trucks, let them see you in your garb," Johnson told them, " ... let them hear the sirens and know that they are going to go off eventually." Johnson, from left, Madison Young and Oscar Sifuentes explore a fire engine Wednesday morning in front of The Helping House, a school for autistic and developmentally delayed children. The firefighters learned how these students might react in an emergency situation, and the students became more familiar with the engines, lights and noises. Christy Wooten/The Daily Sentinel Firefighters look over photos shown to autistic children when teaching about fires as Josie Johnson, an elementary teacher and mother of an autistic child, speaks to the Nacogdoches Fire Department Wednesday morning. Autistic children generally learn more from pictures than from spoken words. Christy Wooten/The Daily Sentinel Nacogdoches firefighter Max Clamon holds a helmet as Madison Young tries it on at The Helping House Wednesday morning. The fire department visited the school's summer program for autistic and developmentally delayed children to help familiarize them with firefighters and their equipment in case of emergencies. Christy Wooten/The Daily Sentinel Amanda Johnson, right, co-founder of The Helping House, speaks with Nacogdoches firefighters Wednesday morning before touring the school for autistic and developmentally delayed children and meeting the students. Josie Johnson, not pictured, who helped Amanda start the school, has been speaking to different shifts this week to educated firefighters on what to expect of autistic children during an emergency. Christy Wooten/The Daily Sentinel

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