Anyone who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or cares for them, knows that the condition can bring frustration and fear in unfamiliar situations. So imagine the noise and confusion of a medical emergency. Think about how that might affect an individual with ASD. Simply being touched by a stranger can cause intense panic for some people.
Working in EMS, you encounter people with all kinds of needs. You will undoubtedly meet some on the autism spectrum, perhaps without even realizing it. Agencies are realizing how much it can benefit EMS professionals to learn some specific skills for working with this group.
EMS1 describes programs created to help EMTs with autistic patients. These cover scenarios ranging from ambulatory rescues to fire emergencies. First responders across the U.S. are learning more about the unique behavior and traits of those with ASD.
Knowledge about ASD coupled with patience and understanding can ease interactions with people on the spectrum. Some people with autism avoid eye contact and struggle with social interaction. In a situation where clear communication means life or death, first responders must know how to engage with these folks. As some with autism are slow to feel or respond to pain, first responders must look for distress cues. Unique communication techniques help those who care for them read symptoms and pain levels.
Signs of ASD vary greatly in severity. At the far end, a patient with autism might repetitively rock, pace, or tap their hands. They do this to put themselves at ease in a stressful situation. The Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation refers to these behaviors as echolalia.
Repetitive movement or lack of eye contact may be misread as symptoms of something else. Recognizing signs of ASD is imperative to avoid improper diagnosis.
Training Programs Underway
Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital trains first responders on how to approach a patient with ASD. EMTs learn to administer help in a way that puts someone on the spectrum more at ease.
For example, first responders are encouraged to allow a patient exhibiting echolalia to continue to move so long as they are not harming themselves or others. The EMT or paramedic can gain the person’s trust this way.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Kimberly Stanford, a mom and mental health professional spearheaded a training program. According to EMS1, she worked with emergency medical professionals to develop a credentialed, continuing education program. The program teaches participants to identify ASD. They learn verbal “de-escalation” and crisis response tactics.
Sometimes forceful and violent reactions to overstimulation occur. Responders who understand this are more equipped to help. They can make a patient with ASD feel as comfortable as possible to administer life-saving care.
No caregiver wants to think of the fear or pain a loved one with ASD would endure during an emergency. With further training and widespread adoption of these initiatives, the hope is to spread understanding. One day no first responder will ever be limited in their ability to administer care because they are unfamiliar with the disorder. Research and planning can help eliminate that fear to the furthest extent possible.