Local emergency responders trained to better handle autism emergencies

Erin MacPherson/ Local emergency responders in Conway for the autism awareness training on March 16, 2016

The Grand Strand area has recently become more autism friendly and on Wednesday that effort continued.

About 60 first responders in Horry County were trained on how to properly handle an autism emergency.

The training was run by Sergeant Jimmy Donohow and Captain William Cannata.

Donohoe is the creator of the "Take Me Home" program out of Pensacola, Florida, and a Sergeant with the Pensacola Police Department.

Cannata is a former Captain with the Westwood Fire Department in Massachusetts and the Director of Autism & Law Enforcement Education Coalition, ALEC.

The training was part of the Autism Society of America's Safe and Sound Program.

"The program was written by first responders with the aid of people with autism. They tell us how they feel, how they think, and what they want these first responders to know," said Cannata.

Cannata and Donohoe are not only emergency responders, but they each have a child with autism.

Autsim now effects one in 68 children, so Cannata said there is a high chance that emergency responders will have to respond to an autism emergency.

"What we're teaching them is to look for the signs of autism, control their sensory environment so they don't escalate. We want to keep them in a calm way the best way we can," said Cannata.

Because about half of the autism community is non-verbal, they often express their feelings with physicals cues that may be hard for some to understand,Donohow said.

"We have no idea what it is. It's relentless and unpredictable. The only way they communicate is with these outbursts," said Becky Large, the Executive Director of Champion Autism Network and the mother of an autistic boy.

Large said it's great for first responders to be better trained on how to handle these situations, but that's only one part of the solution.

"Families have to educate their young ones on what to do, and not to be afraid, and how to handle the situation, and how to communicate with these people," said Large.

Large said there needs to be more awareness in general.

"Everybody needs to know. Everybody needs to be educated. Everybody needs to know about the communication disorder and how to help them and support them," she said.

Donohoe said there are some major concerns that need to be addressed. One is elopement, when children or adults with autism get away.

"We have a large percentage of them that drown. That's going to be one of our main messages today, for these first responders to go and check the waterways first if they hear the word autism and missing," he said.

Donohoe said people with autism don't know safety dangers and that's another concern if someone is missing.

"We're emphasizing if they like trains and they're missing, check the local train tracks because the child might be excited about that train and don't know to move out of the way," said Donohoe.

The South Carolina Autism Society is working to set up a program where first responders can meet autistic children and adults, as well as their families, so they have a better understanding of who they're serving in the community.

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