• Article
  • July 5, 2017

Children's Hospital Provides Autism Training for First Responders

Training educates first responders on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and how to properly handle a call involving an individual with ASD.

Sergeant Dan McDonald leads an autism awareness workshop for first responders at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.
Sergeant Dan McDonald leads an autism awareness workshop for first responders at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital. Credit: Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital

It was late June when Wendy Monico stood before a group of nearly 100 members of police, fire and sheriff departments and EMS personnel at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. She told them the story of her son, Michael.

Michael, who is on the autism spectrum, had a fight with his sister. No one was injured, but police were called, and they arrested Michael. He spent three days in jail before Monico could bring him home, and he was severely traumatized by the experience. Things could have been very different for Michael—he could have gone to a hospital for mental evaluation instead of jail under a Florida law called the Baker Act—if only the responding officers had been more familiar with the behaviors of an individual on the autism spectrum.

Autism training for law enforcement

The first responders listening to Monico's story had volunteered for a special training session hosted by Johns Hopkins All Children's. The purpose of the training, the first of its kind at the hospital, was to educate first responders from across the state of Florida on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), medical problems associated with the disorder, and how to properly handle a call involving an individual with ASD. The workshop was led by a sergeant in the Collier County Sheriff's Office, a 28-year law enforcement veteran and father of a 14-year-old son with ASD.

With 24 years of experience working with children with autism, Flora Howie, M.D., medical director of the Autism Center at Johns Hopkins All Children's, says training like this is critical. "Children with autism may have difficulty reading someone's facial expression or body language, or understanding that a situation means they should follow what a law enforcement officer says," says Howie, who presented at the training session. "Some children on the spectrum can become aggressive if they get upset, and it's not particularly directed at anyone, but they can lose control."

Even flashing lights, sirens or other loud noises can be enough to trigger a child with autism to "melt down," according to Howie.

Increasing prevalence of autism

The prevalence of autism is on the rise. Howie says autism was identified in only one in every 600 children 20 years ago, while today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report on autism shows one in every 68 children is on the spectrum. Additionally, as many as 30 percent of children with autism are at risk to wander away, Howie says. These numbers indicate an increased likelihood that first responders will at some point encounter a person with autism.

Want to provide autism training for law enforcement in your region?

Howe suggests that you recruit two key individuals to collaborate with you on your session:

  • A law enforcement officer in your state or community who is willing to come talk about his or her experiences
  • A pediatrician or rehabilitation specialist with deep knowledge of autism spectrum disorder

A need recognized by law

The Florida Legislature recently passed a law requiring first responders to undergo training on autism to help them identify behaviors of individuals with ASD, further underscoring the need for this kind of education. And Howie is thinking even bigger picture. "It is important that nationwide, our law enforcement officers are aware of what autism is and how to respond to it," she says.

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.