Training Public Professionals

People Working With the Public Need to Know About Autism

by Leslie Burby

In time, parents of a child with autism learn what set off their child and what calms their child.  However, we are not the only people that come in contact with our children.  Unfortunately, there is only so much we can do to protect our children.

Training Public Professional

If you have a job that puts you in contact with the general public then you should educate yourself or consider asking your manager or boss to educate staff on autism.  Since “one in every 88 U.S. children have autism” (as stated by the CDC) all firemen, policemen, doctors, all personnel in schools, librarians, nurses, and medics need to know more than just the word “autism.”  They need to know how to best communicate with children with autism and why they act the way they do.  It is often scary for autistics to go out in public.  Hopefully, enough awareness will create some sensitivity to some of the issues.

training public professionals

Some basics –

  1. My child is extremely literal and has been taught social responses for common phrases.  For example, the hospital receptionist and triage nurse asked my daughter, “How are you?”  My daughter’s response was, “I’m fine thank you.”  Not it hurts here and I’ve been hunched over in pain for the past two hours.  It would be helpful to keep pictures for kids to point to help them understand and explain what hurts.  This link provides some visual cues.
  2. Due to the fact that people on the spectrum can be so extremely literal, please refrain from using slang words or figurative language.  Do not say things like “Throw the weapon to me” because in an effort to please you they will throw it right at you, not necessarily near you.
  3. My child is not deaf, although at times it may appear that way because she will not look at you when you speak to her.  She has perfect hearing.  Please don’t say things like “look at me” or “you know it’s rude not to look at people when they’re speaking to you.”  People on the spectrum have the ability to “tune people out” or “escape to Lala Land.”  Some of them have the ability to not feel pain when physically hurt. I met a man last night that had his finger bitten off by a tiger and didn’t come out of his “Lala land” for several days after the incident.
  4. Yes, people with autism can “look” normal.  My daughter appears to be a neuro-typically functioning child.  Autism does not have facial characteristics such as Down Syndrome.  This does not mean that it doesn’t exist.
  5. Distractions work best.  If you have an electronic device on you – use it!  Your cell phone or an iPad can be a huge help to distract them from their nerves.  Stimming is when they flap their arms, legs, or hands or rock in an effort to calm their body.  In many instances they don’t realize that they are doing it.
  6. Routines are not just important they are essential.  Autistics have sensory processing difficulties.  This means that their CNS (central nervous system) has difficulty properly receiving and interpreting the information received through their senses.  So sounds, lights, scents, and fast movements can be extremely alarming.  In some cases, sensitivities such as bright lights and sirens can even cause physical pain.  So avoiding the use of sirens, (if possible) may be helpful.  Also, when speaking to a person with autism, remember that they may need more time to process what you are saying.  So be patient when waiting for a response and be prepared to repeat yourself if necessary.
  7. Due to the fact that they have difficulty with where their body is in space, it is common for autistics to get too close or not close enough.  Also, if approached quickly they might swing at you in self-defense because they can’t tell if you are going to crash into them.  They are not being violent. They are merely defending themselves.  If you were uncertain where you were in space and a person came quickly towards you, I bet you’d put your arms up in self defense, too.  So approach them slowly.
  8. You need to know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.  Three year olds tantrum for 5 – 10 minutes when they don’t get what they want.  In contrast, autistic children have meltdowns that occur because the CNS is overloaded and can last for over an hour.  In some instances, they become non-responsive during this time.
  9. Emergency Eye-cons should be available to staff. They are the size of luggage tags and have pictures on them to help communicate with nonverbal children.  Visit for resources.
  10. Look for a Medical ID tag/bracelet and/or an Autism Handout Card when approaching someone.
  11. People on the spectrum have trouble with social cues, which means that they can’t read your facial expressions.
  12. Some people on the spectrum don’t have a clear understanding of danger.

training public professionals

For more information on this topic, I recommend the following site by Dennis Debbaudt.  Dennis is the author of Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, articles for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (April, 2001), and many other law enforcement and autism publications.

Debbaudt Legacy Productions’ training video, Autism & Law Enforcement Roll Call Briefing Video is in use by the Department of Homeland Security, Pennsylvania State Police, Portland, Cincinnati, Nashville, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Toledo, Virginia Beach Police Departments, and the MTA New York City Transit police among hundreds of agencies. Debbaudt Legacy Productions produced an Autism & Law Enforcement video and trainers guide for the sole use of the New York Police Department (NYPD). For more information, or to schedule a training session or a presentation please visit


Dennis Debbaudt teaching a class of law enforcement professionals.



Leslie Burby

Leslie Burby

Leslie Burby is the former Editor-in-Chief of Autism Parenting Magazine and a public speaker on autism related issues. She is the author of three autism related books: Emotional Mastery for Adult's with Autism (2013); Early Signs of Autism in Toddlers, Infants and Babies (2014); and the children's book Grace Figures Out School (2014).