First Responders Get Autism Training, Many Valuable Nuances to Learn

In recent years, we’ve seen a growing understanding and embracing of autism, which affects more than two million people in the U.S. alone. Jason Dorval, a Massachusetts firefighter, paramedic and father, is doing his part to bring that understanding to first responders through his training program.

According to an article on, Dorval’s training is part of the Autism and Law Enforcement Coalition, which works to teach first responders how to recognize individuals who have autism and how to treat them appropriately. Dorval’s most recent training session was held at the Milford Fire Department in Milford, Conn. There, Dorval told first responders about his son, Connor, who has both autism and Down syndrome.

Dorval noted the difference between visible disabilities and invisible ones. His son’s Down syndrome can be seen with the naked eye, because of the physical characteristics that the syndrome presents. His autism, however, is harder to spot – and this is what first responders need to learn to look for.

“It’s important to recognize a person with autism so they’re not misconceived as being noncompliant with fire and police orders, (or) thought to be injured or possibly intoxicated,” Dorval told the CT Post.

The symptoms of autism can be easily misunderstood – things like light and sound sensitivity, social disengagement and language impairment. Dorval explained these things can be taken by first responders as signs of something entirely different, and incorrect, such as drunkenness. Sometimes people with autism can also be physically aggressive, another behavior that can be misperceived.

One example of a misperception of autistic behavior Dorval explained, involves the tendency for some people with autism to repeat the last thing they heard. He recounted a story from a firefighter he’d met in a previous training session, who asked a teenager, “Where are you going?” The teen responded with the same question, “Where are you going?”

The situation escalated and the first responder took the teen’s behavior as belligerence, eventually resulting in the teen punching the firefighter in the face. Other similar situations have led to autistic individuals getting arrested and shocked with Tasers.

The real life example shows how important this kind of training is – both for the autistic individual’s safety and for the first responder’s safety.

A Round-Up of Dorval’s Tips

  • Check (subtly) if the person in question is wearing anything that indicates he/she has special needs, such as a medical bracelet.
  • Learn to identify the behaviors that can be signs of autism, such as echolalia (repeating the last thing they’ve heard), an unsteady walk, language impairment and social disengagement.
  • Remember the person may be sensitive to light and sound – e.g. sirens and flashing car light bars.
  • If you think the person may have autism, identify yourself as a “helper”. Make it clear you are not a threat.
  • Be direct. Some people who have autism need to hear things in simple language. Dorval explained, rather than giving a complex command like, “Go sit over there and wait for me,” say instead, “sit down” or “wait.”


For the original article from the CT Post, click here: