When firefighters are called, the situation is usually very dangerous. They have to move fast to keep everyone safe. The general community understands how to respond when firefighters are on the scene. But those with autism, maybe even your son or daughter, don’t necessarily know what to do.
So parents need to be proactive, not reactive. Parents need to prepare their children ahead of time.
Parents might visit their local fire department and share some information with them from resources like Autism Speaks, the National Autism Society, or local schools and centers in their community.
These resources can help first responders who may not fully understand people with autism know their common characteristics and how to best communicate with them. But sharing personal information about your unique individual is the most helpful.
There are a number of tools found on the Autism Speaks website to help parents prepare their children to respond well to emergency services.
It is also critical to write up a safety plan should your child ever be involved in an emergency situation. Sharing the plan and information about your child’s challenges with the fire department and law enforcement is the next step. The Autism Speaks website has sample documents for these as well.
When firefighters have more knowledge about autism, they can then adjust their strategies when they arrive on the scene—your home. When families teach their children, teens, and adults with autism about situations where firefighters are involved, the firefighters can then do their important jobs quickly and safely.
When a firefighter is first made aware a situation involves an individual with autism, he/she might arrive on the scene without the use of sirens or flashing lights if he/she knows about your child’s sensory challenges. It’s up to you to inform him/her.
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Parents can meet with firefighters in their community and let them know sound and light sensitivity is common in those with autism and may trigger a seizure or cause the individual to shut down or hide, making the situation worse. You then tell them about your child and share his/her unique sensitivities.
It is also important for firefighters to know 25 percent of those on the autism spectrum have seizures and might be taking some type of medication. Please inform your local firefighters if your child takes seizure medications or any other type of medication for anxiety, confusion, and frustration. They will need to know this information in case there is an injury due to the fire.
The firefighter should also know about your child’s communication style. Be quick to inform them if he/she is verbal or nonverbal. Does he/she have a device to speak with? Does he/she understand directions? Does he/she sign? Can he/she write responses? This will help the firefighter understand how to approach and communicate.
They need to know that speaking slowly, with clear directions, and without force would be the best approach. You might explain loud, demanding voices and directions might cause your child to shut down more.
Firefighters should also be made aware some individuals with autism are sensitive to touch, while others do not have a normal range of sensations and may not feel the cold, heat, or pain in a typical manner. Let the firefighter know that before he/she touches your child, it may be best to ask permission or communicate why he/she needs to see or touch a particular body part to help your child get out of a dangerous area.
Completing an information profile on your child, highlighting communication styles, sensory sensitivities, fears, anxieties, medication needs, and medical challenges would truly help firefighters respond in the best manner in your individual situation.
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Here are some quick facts you might want to share with your local fire department
People with autism can’t be identified by appearance. They look the same as anyone else. They’re identified by their behavior. About one in 58 children has autism.
Some people with autism do not have a typical range of sensations. In fact, they may fail to acknowledge pain in any given situation. They may also show an unusual pain response that could include laughter, humming, singing, and removing clothing.
Speak in short, clear phrases: “Get in,” “Sit down,” or “Wait here.” Autistic individuals may take longer to respond to directives because they don’t understand what’s being demanded of them, or even just because they’re scared. They may not be able to process the language and understand an instruction when fearful.
When restraint is necessary during a fire emergency, be aware many people with autism may have a poorly developed upper trunk area. Positional asphyxiation could occur if steps are not taken to prevent it; avoid keeping them face down. People with autism may continue to resist restraint during a fire emergency.
Adults with autism are just as likely to hide as children in a fire situation. Check in closets, under the bed, and behind furniture during search and rescue.
People with autism are a wandering or bolt risk after rescue. Once outside, their risk of flight could be elevated by the sensory overload of emergency vehicles, lights, radios, and police. Firefighters may need to stay with the individual or hand off him/her to another caregiver.
A person with autism may be afraid of an approaching firefighter due to the mask and equipment and may flee from help.
Some individuals with autism may successfully escape a burning building and then try to return to find a prized possession.
Ways parents can best prepare children for a fire emergency
It is essential to develop a plan of escape from your home and go over it with your child. This should include picking a safe gathering spot outside your home. Your child also needs to understand what a fire is and its characteristics. He/She needs to know what a fire could do.
Your child also needs to know we have firemen and women to help when a fire breaks out and how to call for firefighters. Social stories are the best tools to use to teach these concepts. Having the fire department’s phone number on the refrigerator, in your child’s communication device, or in your child’s smartphone could also be very helpful.
Families, please visit the fire station alone first and then with your child. Take pictures of the firemen in their protective gear. Take pictures of the station, the fire equipment, and the emergency vehicles. Write a social story about how firemen help us.
Read this to your child once a month. Schedule your visit with the fire department so your child can see and touch and hear people, places, objects, noises, and protective gear associated with fire departments ahead of time.
Firefighters are always open to education and connection. They may even let your child climb on the engine, try on a hat, hold a hose, and perhaps sound the fire siren.
It is important for your children to know firefighters are friends. They help us stay safe. We need to listen to them and follow their directions if they come to our home. They are here to help us.
Resources to Offer Your Fire Departments
This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD