Emergency personnel in Riverside County are being trained to recognize and effectively interact with the autistic.
According to a news release, the City of Temecula, Cal Fire and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department are engaging their local firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, law enforcement and emergency dispatch in specialized training to recognize and effectively communicate with people who have Autism, as well as reduce or eliminate dangerous situations and behaviors.
Autism is described as a “complex brain disorder that inhibits a person's ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by behavioral challenges.”
Since the formation of the Southwest Riverside Autism Task Force in 2010—led by Temecula Mayor Mike Naggar—the City of Temecula has actively advocated on behalf of Temecula’s special needs and autistic community, city officials stated.
“One of several identified priorities within the City of Temecula/Southwest Riverside Autism Task Force Community Playbook, developed by Naggar and finalized in October 2012, has been to expand training among key constituencies that serve or engage individuals with special needs, including public safety personnel,” according to the news release.
“The prevalence of Autism has become an epidemic and a first responder's chance of encountering an autistic person is a matter of when, not if,” stated Naggar. “Training all emergency personnel is a necessity.”
City officials cited the following statistics: “Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control reported that Autism affected about 1 in 150 children. By 2008, the CDC estimate had increased to 1 in 88. Now, according to a recent CDC report, 1 in 50 school-aged children between the ages of 6 and 17 are being diagnosed.”
All Cal Fire personnel will receive the training in early 2014, according to the news release.
“Wandering-related dangers, including drowning and prolonged exposure, remain a concerning risk within the Autism population,” said Temecula fire Capt. Hans Bolowich. “Some children and adults may not be able to seek help if lost, or respond to their names when called. Being able to recognize such individuals and help them accordingly is critical.”
The public safety employees are undergoing training that was developed by either Ralph Carrasquillo Jr., of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department or Autism Risk & Safety Management.
Brian Herritt, a consultant for Autism Risk & Safety Management, explained that: “Autistic individuals are not easily recognized by emergency personnel as having a disability so their behaviors can be misinterpreted as defiant.
“Most are sensitive to lights and sounds, especially sirens and excessive input on their senses can lead to a meltdown. Often times, people with Autism have difficulty making eye contact and/or are non-verbal, and may not respond to simple commands or questions.
“The spectrum of Autism is very wide, however. This means that no two people with Autism will have exactly the same characteristics. Within the spectrum, there are Autism-related behaviors and characteristics that are less visible or apparent.”
Last week, according to the news release, Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff in collaboration with Naggar’s outreach, began implementing training among all graduating cadets from Riverside County Sheriff's Academy located at the Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center.
“I commend Sheriff Sniff for his genuine understanding of the importance of Autism training, and for proliferating training of law enforcement on a regional basis throughout the County as matter of public safety both for his officers and for those they serve,” Naggar said.
Temecula Chief of Police Jeff Kubel also began implementing the same training throughout the Temecula Police Department, with sessions offered in December and January, city officials said.
"Specialized training is important for law enforcement, particularly in precarious situations where communication impairments can make all involved more vulnerable,” Kubel said. “This type of specialized training will help our officers better serve the public when we encounter persons with special needs such as Autism."
Naggar is hopeful training can be considered throughout the state.
“This epidemic is not confined to our region—it is a public health crisis and I am hopeful other jurisdictions might see what we are doing in Temecula and Riverside County and use it as a model in their communities.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 8:11 a.m. Dec. 10 to clarify that the training is countywide, not limited to Temecula, according to Mike Naggar.