On Wednesday evening, Autism Speaks partnered with Abilis to host a Community Safety Event featuring safety strategies for first response for families, adults, and children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Over 100 families were in attendance from surrounding areas in Connecticut and Westchester.
The event began with a resource fair, where attendees had access to information about developing safety plans within the home, school, and community. Autism Speaks Swim & Water Safety grant recipient, Angelfish Therapy, provided families with information on the importance of water safety education and their local special needs water safety programs.
Christine Lai, of Abilis’ Board of Directors, provided opening remarks to kick-off the evening’s program, followed by Michael Bocchino, Connecticut State Representative for House District 150, and Peter Tesei, First Selectman for Greenwich; both welcoming the crowd and describing their own dedication to representing the interests of the special needs community, emphasizing the importance of raised awareness and understanding.
Lindsay Naeder, Director of the Autism Response Team for Autism Speaks, spoke about safety as a concern for the entire autism community with increased risk factors leading to greater instances of interacting with first responders. She shared how Autism Speaks and its partners are working to educate all types of first responders and provide best practices for use in the field through trainings at the national and community level. Also, Autism Speaks is working to ensure that families know where to access resources and put a plan in place should an emergency situation arise. "Safety education is critical for all individuals with autism and their families," said Naeder. "A comprehensive safety plan should include parents and caregivers working together with first responders to prevent and be prepared to respond to safety concerns.”
In her presentation, Naeder offered recommendations about safety protocols and strategies that families and first responders should have in place to prevent crisis and maximize positive response during emergencies. First responders were encouraged to recognize signs and indicators that increase safety risk, with special attention to common challenges associated with autism, such as communication difficulties and tendency to wander from safety.
Responding officers were advised to reassess the situation, as soon as it is safe to do so, by questioning “Could this be autism and if so, how can I better intervene?”
The panel discussion that followed built upon this foundation and offered diverse perspectives into safety for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. Moderated by Amy Montimurro, with Abilis’ Adult Services, the panelists included:
Ted Jankowski, Greenwich Director of Public Safety, Health and Welfare; Jim Heavey, Greenwich Chief of Police; Detective Michael Rooney, Greenwich Police Department Special Victims Unit; Officer Michael Panza, Greenwich Police Department; Officer Michael Stahl, Fairfield Police Department; Chris Pratico, Greenwich Fire Department; and Jessica Walsh, State Crisis intervention team.
To start the conversation, panelists were asked to provide insight into preemptive safety techniques. Mr. Jankowski talked about the need for clear, consistent communication from all involved and encouraged participation in a local safety programs, such as Project Lifesaver. He emphasized that it takes a whole community to look out for people in need.
Panelists stressed that the most important first step in response to a missing person with autism: contact the police department. Minutes count, and first responders are trained to take initial action which may make all the difference in an emergency situation. It was also encouraged that families take time to get to know their local first responders and “use us before you need us.” By creating familiarity with police, fire, and EMS, it may help to alleviate stress should a crisis arise.
"We are working to keep kids with autism safe and the community safe," Detective Michael Rooney, of the Greenwich Police Department's Special Victims Section said. "We want to be able to help in a time of need and we have been trained to provide services to help people with autism whether they're a child or an adult."
Detective Rooney, also said the department offers a locating system for families of people with autism and other disabilities who are prone to wander from safety, which can reduce search time in the event of a wandering emergency. Enrollment is completely optional, but can provide an added layer of safety if needed.
At the core of the evening’s conversation: preparation. Families were encouraged to fill out emergency plans with information about their child’s interests, needs, communication strategies, and more as a way to quickly fill first responders in as needed, as well as to have a plan in place across all settings including home, school, and service provider programs. It was also suggested that families find day-to-day opportunities to teach safety, so that over time they become a force of habit. Safety is an issue of critical importance for the autism community, and with planning, communication, and collaboration we can work toward successful outcomes.
A special thank you to Abilis and the evening’s panelists for a wonderful event!
Walk with us at the upcoming Westchester/Fairfield Walk Now for Autism Speaks, on June 7th, or find a walk in your area at walknowforautismspeaks.org!