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County begins autism awareness training for firefighters, paramedics

Ken UlmanAlzheimer's Disease

Nationwide, one in 88 people have been diagnosed with some form of autism. In Howard County, that number is one in 73.

However, those numbers, from the county public school system, represent only students. There is no reliable way to count how much of the population has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, said Beth Benevides Hill, past president and current board member of the Howard County Autism Society.

Benevides Hill said the county has higher-than-average numbers not because of more children with autism being born in the county, but because people move to the Howard County because of the services offered to those who need them.

Capt. Tony Concha of Howard County's Department of Fire and Rescue Services agreed, and now, his department is providing autism awareness training for its personnel to better serve those in the county with autism.

"There's a need for this because we do have a high population of people with special needs, and this does allow us to do our job better," Concha said. "When we understand the situations we're in, and specific techniques that are going to make us do our job better, we're going to be able to provide better care for the families."

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, autism is a developmental disorder that affects the brain's development of social and communication skills.

The department has already begun its training of the 1,200 career and volunteer firefighters and paramedics, and Concha expects that training to be complete by the end of December. The training includes an overview of autism, including an online presentation from the Autism Society, and tips for helping people with autism in emergency situations. It also addresses difficulties that may come in a rescue situation involving a person with autism.

In conducting an informal survey of first responders, Concha said the department learned about 63 percent of its personnel had responded to an emergency involving a person with autism in the past two years.

"There's a wide range of functionality among people with autism ... and picking up on (behavioral clues) helps our providers identify a situation that will need extra care," he said.

Concha said firefighters and paramedics responding to emergencies involving persons with autism have to approach the situations differently: spending more time and patience speaking with a person, for example, or not immediately touching the site of an injury.

HCDFRS Chief Bill Goddard said the training — done in partnership with the Howard County Autism Society — is part of the department's overall vision to better work with the community.

When Goddard became chief four years ago, he said County Executive Ken Ulman asked him to look at addressing the challenge of responding to citizens with functional needs — those who are blind, deaf or suffer from dementia, for example.

"We were concerned that we as a county were not reaching out as much as we could and should have," Goddard said.

Much has changed since then, Goddard said. The county convened a functional needs advisory group, and last spring, the Autism Society launched a program with the 911 Call Center that allows residents to voluntarily flag their address in the system, alerting responders that a person with autism lives at a residence. The department, both Goddard and Concha said, will continue expanding outreach efforts.

Such outreach is near to Goddard's heart; the fire chief spent time in Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina, where he and his group met with representatives of the functional needs community.

"We were really digging down into how well the public safety community responded to their needs before, during and after Katrina," Goddard said. "I asked the group, 'If I walk away with one thing, what should it be?' The universal response was, 'Do you even know we're here?' It was one of the most profound feelings of my career."

Benevides Hill said the training for first responders provides them with a better understanding of the needs of an increasing population (currently, there are about 700 students in the county with an autism spectrum disorder).

"It's complex, and knowing what one person needs versus what another needs requires that awareness," she said. "First responders experience varied things, and this improves their safety and the safety of our children and loved ones."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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