Monday, 29 August 2011

First Responder Training in Autism

One thing which has been on many aspies’ minds as a result of the Arie case is the need for police and other ‘first responder’ training in how to recognise and handle autistic people.

Now some might think, “oh, why should they get special treatment?”, but the issue is not ‘special’ treatment so much as appropriate treatment. Imagine, for instance, that a police or ambulance officer sees a person staggering down the street, maybe falling down, twitching and shaking, slurring their words. Their first thought is likely to be “hmm, got another drunk or druggie here!” But if they then found out that the person was actually a diabetic in dire need of insulin, or an epileptic on the edge of a seizure, their whole approach would of course change.

And so it is with autism. Use your imagination once again, and visualise a police officer who encounters a person who ‘walks funny’, who makes inappropriate eye contact or none at all, who ignores social niceties; flinches from bright lights and the clanging of steel doors, seems confused under questioning, gives ‘strange’ answers, or asks lots of ‘strange’ questions themselves; someone who perhaps rambles on and on about things that have no relevance whatsoever to the situation (in the police officer’s eyes anyway), or at any point suddenly ‘shuts down’ and refuses to talk anymore, or insists on using a communication device that the police don’t understand; or suddenly goes into a huge ‘tantrum’, throwing objects, screaming and shouting, or bursting into a sobbing fit, perhaps banging their head against a wall.

If this hypothetical officer had no experience with autism, and no knowledge of it, wouldn’t they likely think the person was drunk, drugged, a psychiatric case, or guilty of something (“He won’t look me in the eye”), or just ‘faking it’ (“She could talk just fine half an hour ago!”)? But a basic knowledge of autism would enable them to see that the person is simply frightened, confused, overwhelmed, and probably experiencing the breakdown or loss of what few social skills they possess, not to mention sensory overload; and that further pressure will only worsen the situation. They could dim lights, provide a less noisy environment, etc etc, and above all not assume the person is ‘guilty’ simply because they don’t respond ‘appropriately’.

This is not ‘special treatment’, but simply common sense, once you understand just how differently autistic people experience the world around them. It’s similar to how knowledgeable individuals interact with people of different cultures. In Samoan culture, for instance, you always put yourself physically ‘lower’ than someone who is above you in status, and staring someone right in the eyes is considered rude. Thus a Samoan, intending to be polite, will immediately sit down, and won’t meet your eye. If they didn’t know, a ‘Palagi’ (white person) might think the Samoan was being rude or evasive. Many other cultures have similar rules. It’s generally only in Western cultures that looking someone straight in the eyes is considered a good thing. This is just one small example of how things can seem very different, once you understand the person you’re interacting with, and where they are ‘coming from’.

Training in awareness of autism for police and emergency personnel isn’t about ‘special treatment’, but rather about understanding and helping all members of the community, in the best way possible.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you. Not every one who ''appears'' to be ''drunk/high'' or otherwise under the influence of a mind altering substance is.I had a bit of a difficulty concerning the law,not so much with the officers who picked me up for ''Loitering'' but in the jail house itself. Some of this was a bit funny as the officers in the jail could not figure out how I was able to squeeze out of the handcuffs.I told them ''It was easy,I am extremely flexable.''They led me to the cell area where I was to spend two days with a crew of women who I didn't know from Eve's aunts,and that's where the difficulties began. The only way I could escape the constant noise screaming and stress was to curl up against the wall and sleep. Meal times were particularly stressful as I have a bad reaction to many processed foods,and so ate very little,and the gals would crowd my space trying to get at my food at the same time.I suppose I am fortunate that I tend to be the type to lock up,or ''shut down''when in that situation,but for others there is a very real danger of violence being done to them if they aren't quiet and stay out of the way. I would say that not only some officers need compassionate training,but the jail houses need to have a section where new inmates are heald seperately from the rest of the people if they show any stress at all,or seem ''different'' from the other people in jail.What do you think?