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Calls to Action

First Responders

"First Responders" are those public safety officials - such as police officers or firefighters - who respond to emergency situations. On a daily basis these first responders encounter a multitude of individuals in emergency situations. Just as each
emergency differs from the next, so does the individual involved, especially in regards to individuals with autism spectrum disorders. It is very likely that over your child's lifetime, he or she will encounter the police or other first responders. This month's Community Connections focuses on what you can do to be most prepared for these situations.

This Month's Expert Interview: Dennis Debbaudt

Thoughts about personal safety and risk are high on the list of concerns expressed everywhere in the global autism community. So, just what can we do to increase security and lower the risks? Dennis Debbaudt, founder of Autism Risk and Safety Management, shares the following tips for working with first responders and keeping people with autism safe:



Be Prepared for an Autism Emergency - Plan Your Response
An Autism Emergency information handout should be developed, copied, and carried with you at all times. 

The handout should cover the following information:

  • Name of child or adult
  • Current photograph and physical description including height, weight, eye and hair color, any scars or other identifying marks
  • Names, home, cell and pager phone numbers and addresses of parents, other caregivers and emergency contact persons
  • Sensory, medical or dietary issues and requirements
  • Inclination for elopement and any atypical behaviors or characteristics that may attract attention
  • Favorite attractions and locations where person may be found
  • Likes, dislikes - approach and de-escalation techniques
  • Methods of communication, if non-verbal sign language, picture boards, written word
  • ID wear, jewelry, tags on clothes, printed hand out card
  • Map and address guide to nearly properties with water spruces and dangerous locations highlighted
  • Blueprint or drawing of home, with bedrooms of individuals highlighted

Skills for Children and Less Independent Adults
Form partnerships with teachers and law enforcement professionals to help develop a simple curriculum that helps expand skills that will enhance their safety in the community and build personal resilience to risk. Invite a variety of law enforcers to sit among (not stand in front of) students. Officers can participate in mock interviews, for example, by asking the student what their name is and if they have an ID card. Examples of curriculum could include:

  • Recognizing and responding as best they can to law enforcers, their uniforms, badges and vehicles
  • Stay with and/or go to police and other uniformed first responders
  • Keep an appropriate distance when interacting with a law enforcer
  • Avoid making sudden movements
  • Carry and safely produce an ID card
  • Disclose their autism and/or produce an autism information card
  • Tell someone they need help or use the phone to request it

Build Skills for More Independent Adolescents or Adults with Autism or Asperger Syndrome
People with autism who are able to navigate the community without assistance should strongly consider developing a personal handout for the police and develop the skills and resiliency to risk disclosure of their need for accommodation. Remember that the initial uniformed contact with police presents the highest potential for negative outcomes.

Develop a handout card that can be easily copied and laminated. It can be generic or specific to you. The person with autism should carry it with them at all times and give away to the officer or other emergency personnel on the scene.

An example of what a handout card could look like (Debbaudt, 2006b)


  • I have autism or Asperger Syndrome.
  • I will be anxious in new situations or with new people.
  • I may be confused by standard interview or interrogation techniques and produce a misleading statement or false confession.
  • I may not fully understand the consequences of my actions.
  • Please contact a professional who is familiar with autism or Asperger Syndrome. Call the following professional: ______________________

Further Suggestions to Consider During Interactions with Police:

  • Do not attempt to flee.
  • Do not make sudden movements.
  • Try to remain calm.
  • Verbally let the officer know you have autism. If nonverbal, use alternative communication tools, such as a simple sign language card that indicates the need to write.
  • Obtain permission or signal intentions before reaching into a coat or pants pocket or reaching into a car glove box.
  • If unable to answer questions, consider using autism information card.
  • If you lose the ability to speak when under stress, considering wearing an alert bracelet or necklace that is easy to see.
  • Ask the officer to contact an advocate if necessary and possible.
  • Carry the phone number of an advocacy organization or personal advocate, relative, or friend.

Dennis Debbaudt is the proud father of Brad, a young man who has autism. A professional investigator and law enforcement trainer, Dennis has authored and co-authored over 30 articles and books since 1993 including 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.

Build Safety Skills as Part of Your Daily Routine
Learning to recognize that men and women in uniform are people you can go to and stay with during an emergency is a lesson we all learn. People with autism can learn these lessons when we teach them these safety skills at home, reinforce them at school and practice them in the community.They are learned best when they are delivered early and often and are suited to a child or adult's age and ability levels.

Experience Speaks!

Click here to read safety stories from two parents of children with autism.

First Responder Resources
The Autism Safety Project
Autism Speaks

Autism Risk & Safety Management
Dennis Debbaudt

Autism Safety Toolkit
National Autism Association and Unlocking Autism

Autism Information for Emergency Personnel
The Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation

Autism ALERT
Autism Alliance for Local Emergency Responder Training

For Safekeeping: First Responders Autism Training Video
Autism Alliance of MetroWest (for purchase to educate your local community)

Visit Our Resource Guide!
There are a number of first responder trainings listed in our Resource Guide. Search here for trainings available in your area.

Tell Us About Your Experience!
We would like to hear from you! Describe your experiences with first responders, and what you learned from these experiences. E-mail us at