Helping the helping hands

Emergency responders in Saratoga County are receiving training that will help them better perform their jobs when interacting with those afflicted with an increasingly common neurological disorder: autism.

More than 50 first responders from throughout Saratoga, Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties attended an autism training conference on Thursday, March 26. By a show of hands, most have had contact with an autistic person, but a scant few indicated they had received training.

Organized by the Saratoga County Council on Autism and local lawmakers, it is hoped that the training session will be the first of many. According to author and public speaker Dennis Debbaudt, those with autism are seven times more likely to come into contact with police, EMTs and firefighters, and in those situations normal operating procedures could endanger both parties.

The chances of having interaction are high, said Debbaudt. "There's a skills gap in training with how to deal with autism in your professions."

Debbaudt travels the country and globe giving training sessions, and he says the need for them is great. Only three states mandate autism training for emergency responders.

Sufferers of autism come into contact with the authorities so often, largely because of the public's perception of their behavior. Affecting one in 150 births, autism's wide range of effects leads to actions that many will see as suspicious or drug-induced.

Some sufferers of autism are prone to wandering and may go door to door. When finding one that's open, they might enter a random household to the alarm of its inhabitants. About half are non-verbal. Many are drawn to bodies of water, making drowning one of the top autism-related sources of death.

In addition, a caretaker's efforts to control or help an autistic person could easily be interpreted as assault.

Debbaudt, for example, was detained by shopping mall security when he tried to remove his autistic child from a toy store.

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