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Autism Training for NYC Search and Rescue Team

This post is written by Nola Waill, an intern with Family Services at Autism Speaks and a Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).  Nola is a student at Washington University in St. Louis as a psychology major and has a profound interest in developmental disorders.  Her background as an emergency first responder has shaped her perspective on autism wandering and has personally compelled her to spread the word on autism safety awareness.  

As the weather gets warmer, many families are spending time outdoors, on vacation, by the pool, in the park, etc.  Unfortunately, families with loved ones on the autism spectrum must consistently remain on high alert.  These fun and relaxing summertime activities can often pose a threat to these individuals, nearly 50% of whom will wander at least once in their lifetime.  Given that many with autism may lack a true sense of danger, what starts out as an innocent desire to explore can sometimes prove fatal.  Approximately 91% of deaths in individuals with autism subsequent to wandering are due to drowning.  In other cases, problems may arise when a first responder doesn’t know how to communicate with an individual with autism in a way that is efficient, pleasant and safe.

I am thrilled to be involved with the developing safety initiative at Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks is working to educate first responders about special considerations for responding to and preventing wandering, and improving communication in emergency situations. Law enforcement officers, emergency medical service professionals and firefighters are trained to keep our community safe. Protocols are very specific in order to ensure the highest standard of care.  I know from experience that when it comes to response and treatment, every second counts.  Of course, I actively make sure that I come across as friendly and trustworthy, but at the end of the day, I need my questions answered so that I can quickly assess a patient and begin treatment.  That being said, it is imperative to always keep in mind that every patient is different.  Emergency situations greatly increase anxiety levels which can cause communication difficulties for individuals with autism. In some instances, several minutes may pass before a patient can comfortably communicate and remain calm.  Having patience is both valuable and necessary.

With the prevalence of autism having grown to 1 in 68 according to the CDC, it is critical that first responders be aware of autism and its commonly associated behaviors, so they are able to best approach situations involving individuals on the spectrum.  With this training, we hope to familiarize first responders with autism-related behaviors, potential characteristics that could be misinterpreted, guidelines for communication, suggestions for search and rescue and tips for successful and positive interactions.  This training follows Pathfinders for Autism’s first responder autism training curriculum, Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders (funded by Autism Speaks).

On Thursday, July 17, I joined my supervisor and fellow Family Services team member, Lindsay Naeder, in representing Autism Speaks while training the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) in Staten Island, New York.  This incredible group of volunteers aims to assist the community in the event of a major emergency.  These emergencies could range from medical disasters involving many people to the search for a single missing person.  The CERT has been involved in searches for individuals with autism in the past and the team agreed that they could greatly benefit from this training.

The training was interactive with CERT members expressing a deep commitment to the quality of their interactions with the community.  Many questions centered around search and rescue, sparking a conversation on the most reliable ways to establish trust and credibility with a missing individual with autism.  Lindsay and I emphasized the urgent importance of searching water first, given the attraction to water that many individuals with autism exhibit and the danger it presents. Additional concerns included responding to a mass casualty incident in which it may be difficult to know for sure if an individual has autism. CERT members were advised to take note of any atypical behaviors and be sure to report them when transferring care to another professional on scene.  For instance, after listing injuries and immediate life threats, the CERT member might mention that the person is non-verbal and seems to be frustrated by flashing lights.

We genuinely enjoyed getting to know the CERT and sharing valuable information on wandering prevention and response, as well as patient interaction.  Attendees were grateful for the updated information and expressed a true wish to be further involved in autism-related safety efforts in the future.  We look forward to providing training to all 50 CERT chapters in the NYC area.               

For information about autism safety awareness training in your local community, email

For information on Autism Speaks Safety & Wandering Prevention resources for parents and first responders, please click here or contact the Autism Response Team at 1-888-288-4762 (en Español at 1-888-772-9050) or email

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.