Brad Donohoe, 32, is non-verbal and still in diapers. He’s docile and affectionate, but mentally is at a 2- or 3-year-old’s level.
Holding up a photo of his son, Pensacola Police Department Sergeant Jimmy Donohoe said you would never know he’s autistic from sight alone – and that’s a problem for first responders. It’s important for law enforcement and other first responders to understand who they’re dealing with, and to recognize the signs of autism so they respond accordingly and avoid miscommunication that could become tragic.
Donohoe and Massachusetts fire chief Bill Cannata, who also has a son with autism, spent four days this week presenting to different Escambia and Santa Rosa counties’ agencies about the issue. The workshops included everyone from EMTS and firefighters to lifeguards and law enforcement officers. Donohoe and Cannata travel around the country presenting their training to any agency who’s willing to learn. The presentation this week was coordinated through Autism Pensacola.
While many people with autism are not dangerous, when put in overwhelming situations like that of having a police or fire truck show up at their home, they can react unpredictably, Donohoe said.
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Many with autism have sensory issues, so the lights and sirens can cause them to become agitated, or run away. For police officers especially, it’s vital to understand that those with autism can have a difficult time responding to social cues.
“Most of our people avoid social situations, it’s tough for them to engage, they don’t know how to do it so they avoid it,” Cannata told the group. “We’re social at work, we try to talk to them and find out what’s happening, which makes it hard when they try to avoid it.”
Autism is a disorder in which no two people are the same, Cannata said. His son, Ted, can become aggressive when someone he doesn’t know approaches him. He’s sent three care givers to the emergency room with bite wounds, he told the group.
Brad Donohoe would never attack someone, Sgt. Donohoe said, but would instead continue retreating until he’s backed into a corner.
“Don’t drop your guard with these people,” Donohoe said. “Don’t drop your officer safety for any reason… . in fact you’re going to have to increase your officer safety.”
KLAAS Kids field searcher Shannon Murray took Donohoe and Cannata’s training almost two years ago and put the principles into practice almost immediately. She responded to a call of a woman with autism lost in the woods neat the Alabama Welcome Center.
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Murray said the organization often responds to calls involving autism, but that was the first time she really stopped to talk to the family about what level of autism the woman had, what medications she was taking and what her tendencies were.
“Those were the first things I was asking, where on the spectrum is she, what led to this, when did she last take medication? The combination of those search and rescue questions as well as that other piece, the medical and autism side, really helped in that situation,” she said.
The group was able to find the woman after more than 12 hours of searching. The woman was scared and had sent a photo on her dying cellphone to her family, which Murray and the other searchers determined was likely near water. Murray backtracked the woman’s steps, and remembered that in the autism training they said autistic people have a tendency to go toward water.
They found the woman safe.
“It really was the sweetest sight because there’s this woman who’s been in the woods all night long, we believed she’d be very angry with us because she had been in that meltdown mode when she went missing, but she was just elated to see us,” Murray said.
Cannata said data is not kept on how many police or fire calls involve those with autism, but it’s a mechanism both he and Donohoe want in place. There is a process for listing calls that involve people with disabilities, but that covers such a wide range of conditions that it’s hard to use that data to hone in on what services those with autism need, Donohoe said.
Instructors showed a video during the workshop in which several people with autism were asked if they waive their rights, and almost all interpreted that as a request to wave their right hand.
For those who are non-verbal, it can be even more difficult.
“The most frustrating part for me as a parent is he can’t tell you what’s wrong,” Donohoe said. “When he sits on his bed and cries you don’t know if that’s emotional of physical, and that’s the toughest part with these people because you can’t help them if you don’t know what’s wrong.”
The pair was scheduled to present their training to the Pensacola International Airport Friday to round out the week of local agencies’ training.
Emma Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8680.