Fredericksburg Families

Amy Umble writes about family issues and kid-friendly events.

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Preparing for an emergency when you have a family member with autism

One of the first stories I covered when I came to work for The Free Lance-Star 11 years ago was about firefighters teaching fire safety at elementary schools. They taught the basics: “Stop, Drop and Roll,” how to call 911 and the importance of a family emergency plan.

My sons were 4 and 5 at the time, and I felt my conscience prick as I listened to the lesson. We didn’t have a family emergency plan. We’d never held a fire drill. I knew  we should. But our family situation was complicated by the fact that my oldest son has autism.

I didn’t know how to tailor a family emergency plan to a child who doesn’t speak. One who wouldn’t trust a stranger in a full firefighting gear, no matter how many times I told him it would be OK. There weren’t many resources. Dealing with life–especially life with autism–kept us busy. I forgot about the emergency plan.

Until today when I began reporting on a fire that claimed the life of a 14-year-old boy with autism. I looked around–and there still aren’t many resources on preparing for an emergency when a family member has autism.

But a retired firefighter in Massachusetts is trying to change that. William Cannata was a firefighter and a father to a boy with autism when he realized that most first responders didn’t know how to react to victims who have autism. So he created Fire/Rescue Autism Training and has traveled the country offering seminars.

In addition to firefighters, Cannata has trained TSA officers, law enforcement officers and other first responders.

“With one in 50 children diagnosed with autism, chances are that these guys are going to have an encounter,” Cannata said.

The biggest tip he gives first responders is that people with autism often won’t be trying to escape the home–that is their comfort zone. They’re also not likely to go willingly with a firefighter.

Additionally, fire scenes are chaotic–with extraordinary noises, smells and sounds. Since most people with autism have sensory processing issues, the typical chaos of a fire scene will be exaggerated to them.

For families, Cannata stresses the importance of being proactive. He tells caregivers to call their local fire department and let them know that there is a person with autism in the home. He also recommends taking a person with autism to visit local firefighters, so he will be familiar with them in an emergency.

A disability advocacy group in Norfolk, Mass., where Cannata lives, holds community days–where emergency workers hold an open house for people with autism. They spend about two hours getting to know each other.

“In the end, they just develop a great relationship and have a better understanding of each other,” Cannata said.

You can learn more about Cannata’s work here.

UPDATE: Cannata sent me this additional idea, which could really help some families:

“Some of our children will leave during a fire if they are motivated.  When the alarm goes off, some families meet outside and listen to music or watch DVDs in the family car.  My son will follow an Ipad anywhere.  A great way to get him to escape.”