Capt. Bill Cannata has been training the FDNY in what to do when handling an autistic child in an emergency. Cannata, an autism first responder educator has first hand experience with his autistic son, Ted.
“A lot of the time, people with autism don’t understand what’s going on so they don’t know what’s expected of them,” said Cannata. “They’re going to do opposite of what a first responder would think.”
Cannata, from the Westwood, Mass. Fire Department, travels the country, teaching emergency responders how to deal with autistic children.
Autistic children can suffer sensory overload from the loud noises and flashing lights associated with an emergency situation. Sometimes lacking a natural sense of danger, they may resist rescue, run into a fire instead of away from it, or even attack and bite the very person trying to rescue them.
Cannata’s son, “can be very aggressive; Ted’s a biter. If you keep getting into his personal space, he’s probably going to bite.” Cannata uses this example to illustrate that rescuers first need to approach in a quiet, non-threatening manner. He goes on to instruct rescuers to be wary of touching: some might fight back, so try not to touch near the shoulders or face.
Cannata recommends the use of simple, short instructions like “Get up” or “Wait here,”. And never to use slang like “Are you cool?” as it will be taken literally. Be prepared for a forced entry, warns Cannata. Parents often have to lock every door in the house to keep an autistic child from wandering out.
Wednesday’s seminar was recorded so that autism training can happen in every firehouse and for all new recruits at the fire academy on Randall’s Island.