Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
One in 59 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a significantly growing rate to the previously rare number of four in 10,000. That can translate to up to seven children in a general elementary school — kindergarten through sixth-grade — and that number increases as they combine in middle school and high school.
“There is a lot of kiddos with autism that are going to be encountered,” said Sean Swindler, director of Community Program Development and Evaluation at the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training.
Because of the increasing chances of encountering a child with autism, Fort Leavenworth firefighters and other first responders attended an autism and family resources training session Feb. 19 at the Resiliency Center.
Swindler and Katy Tepper, a post-doctoral fellow who specializes in autism at the University of Kansas Medical Center’s Center for Child Health and Development, led the training. The training was sponsored by the Army Community Service Exceptional Family Member Program in partnership with installation first responders.
“The rate of autism has been steadily increasing over recent years, and with that increase, there has been an increase within military families as well,” said Jessica Brushwood, EFMP manager. “The information presented in this training is also relevant for some other behavioral concerns or developmental disabilities, and it also promoted the understanding that not all disabilities are visible.
“Although autism looks different between individuals, there can be special safety concerns that should be considered,” she said. “When responding to an emergency, it is important to consider all factors of a situation that may not be initially obvious.”
During the training, Swindler and Tepper introduced various traits that someone with autism might possess, including deficits in social communication and interaction; restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests; additional diagnoses including tics, anxiety disorders and self-injurious behavior; neurocognitive problems; sensory characteristics; elopement, which is when someone wanders away from home or his or her caregiver; legal issues caused by a lack of understanding of proper social skills; warning signs of a meltdown; proper response techniques and safety tips.
“I’m hoping that the training served as professional development and refreshed some of what (Fort Leavenworth first responders) already understood about autism and other developmental disabilities,” Brushwood said.
Fort Leavenworth Fire and Emergency Services Assistant Chief of Training Edgar Guerra said the training was excellent.
“The instructors … have extensive experience and knowledge,” Guerra said. “It is essential for first responders to understand autism and be prepared to respond effectively and safely to situations that arise involving individuals on the spectrum.”
Battalion Chief Dustin Hensley said he also enjoyed the training.
“Our members of the Fort Leavenworth Fire Department now have a better understanding of how critical and stressful an emergency can be for children and adults along with parents and guardians who experience autism spectrum disorder, as well as the difference we can make as first responders when dealing with emergencies,” Hensley said. “We really appreciated the abundance of knowledge these speakers had and how they were able to combine the information and scenarios to better prepare our response so we can more effectively serve our community.”
Hensley said that while the entire training was useful, one thing stood out.
“A point that stood out to me was understanding how members of the community who have autism spectrum disorder process information as well as the use of different gestures to communicate certain feelings in an emergency situation,” Hensley said. “At any time, we may be called to assist members of our community, which no two emergencies are the same.
“Certain emergency responses have to be tailored to the needs of the community that we serve, and that’s why having a basic understanding of autism spectrum disorder will greatly improve the outcome of the emergency or crisis that we respond to,” he said. “Applying the valuable information that we obtained today will allow our men and women of the fire service to respond with different techniques to lessen the effects of anxiety that a person may be experiencing, which in turn will better the outcome of the emergency or crisis.”
For more information about EFMP, call 684-2800.