The Hoboken Fire Department will undergo training to better respond to emergency situations involving Hoboken residents living on the autism spectrum. Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as unique strengths. One in every 68 people nationwide and one in every 41 people in New Jersey is on the spectrum, according to autismnj.org.
Police or firefighters may be confused by the behavior of a person with autism when responding to an emergency call.
“With the population of individuals with autism growing, we believe it’s necessary to create awareness and sensitivity among our first responders,” said Captain Rich England of the Hoboken Fire Department, last week.
England recounted a 2016 news story in which a cop shot and injured a Florida behavioral therapist who had followed an autistic patient from a 24-hour care facility and tried to coax him back. A 911 caller told police that there was a man with a handgun, when actually he was seeing the patient with a silver toy truck.
It’s common for people with autism to wander off, England noted.
“In the case of an emergency, it is imperative that first responders are aware of the condition of autism, its symptoms, and its characteristics commonly seen in individuals that are affected,” said England.
POAC Autism Services, a nonprofit group running the training, said people with autism and other developmental differences are approximately seven times more likely to come in contact with law enforcement than the general population. (POAC is an acronym used for Parents of Autistic Children.)
“The actions or non-responsiveness of people with autism are almost always misinterpreted by untrained individuals,” states their website. “Inappropriate social responses and non-contextual emotional outbursts … can cause confusion at best and spark conflict in worst case scenarios.”
England was inspired by his autistic son Mason, age 5, to help coordinate Autism Shield Training for Hoboken first responders.
Autism Shield Training is a three-hour course that trains law enforcement officers and first responders in New Jersey in autism recognition and responses.
England said Mason was diagnosed just before his second birthday. Mason also has epilepsy, a neurological disorder marked by sudden recurrent episodes of sensory disturbance, loss of consciousness, or convulsions, associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
“While Mason has made great strides,” England said, “he remains without speech. Until he finds it, my wife Jamie and I are his voice.”
Thus, first responders may be confused.
“Jamie and I constantly try to keep our guards up, but the reality is that Mason has given us a scare on quite a few occasions over the years,” said England.
He said, “They say it takes a village to raise a child. This certainly holds true for a child on the spectrum. This is why we raise awareness.”
“These individuals deserve better. Mason deserves better.” –Captain Rich England
The training was announced when Mayor Ravi Bhalla, Councilwoman Emily Jabbour, and the Hoboken Special Needs Parent Group met at City Hall on April 4 to proclaim it Autism Awareness Day.
“Hoboken is and inclusive city, and it’s our goal to promote empathy and ensure that everyone has the chance to live life to the fullest,” Bhalla said.
According to Sheillah Dallara, co director of the Hoboken Special Needs Parent Group, of the roughly 204 members of the group, approximately 80 percent have a family member on the spectrum.
Dallara’s 8-year-old son Alexander was one of the speakers during the Autism Day announcement.
“I am so proud of Alexander for his eagerness to share with Hoboken what it’s like being au-some, as I like to call it,” said Sheillah Dallara.
Alexander Dallara called his autism his “super power.”
Alexander said, “I have autism. I think it’s a super power. I am smart, caring, and funny. I am different then other kids. It is a good thing. I also know autism is the best friend in the world. In fact, I love it.”
Provisional Fire Chief Brian Crimmins said he is working with the school district to host a training session and discussion among the Fire Department, Police Department, and the educators at the district so they can best work together in case of an emergency situation at one of the schools.
He said he is also working with the district to try and identify the number of students with disabilities at each school location and where they fall on the spectrum, so the firefighters are best equipped to handle each individuals needs during an emergency.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.