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Students with autism hang out with first responders

Apr 26, 2018

Students with autism got the chance to climb inside a fire truck Thursday and meet with first responders.
Credit Tianna Manon/WXXI News

Staff at the Mary Cariola Children’s Center school say emergencies can be particularly scary for young people with autism. The center specializes in working with young people who have disabilities and on Thursday, teacher Denina Williams Goings organized a Sensory Friendly First Responders Event to help the students get more comfortable with emergency responders and their equipment. 

“They respond very well to structure and to familiarity," Goings explained. "So when they see a familiar face, a familiar uniform, something familiar like a fire truck or familiar police officers, they’re much more likely to respond well to something they’ve been introduced to when they’re not in a crisis." 

The sirens and flashing lights on emergency vehicles can trigger students who are on the spectrum. They may shut down or seek a safe space and, if their adult advocate is the one in danger, they may be left without someone to speak on their behalf.

That’s why Goings says it’s equally important that first responders are comfortable working with young people who have autism or other special needs: “People with [autism], they may have sensory needs, or triggers. They may have signs of escalation that are important for first responders to understand. They may not be able to express themselves.”

Some people with autism are nonverbal, or may not be able to make eye contact. She says she doesn’t want these to be taken as signs of ignoring the first responder or, worse still, disrespect and she’d also like for officers and firefighters responding to a call to consider turning off their lights or sirens if they know someone with autism lives there.

Goings says she was partially motivated by the death of Trevyan Rowe, a student with autism who drowned in early March. And she says a bomb threat to a local school showed her that she needed to prepare students in the case of an emergency—whether at home or in the center.

Principal Rachael Stell agreed saying, it’s a priority at the school.

“Some different things we do on a regular basis Is reviewing what could happen in an emergency,” she said. “We have social stories that our teachers read with the students to prepare for an evacuation, drill or anything like that which can hopefully be generalized into different environments”

While the focus was on safety for Thursday, it was also about fun. Students could climb up into the emergency vehicles, eat pizza or other junk food and even take on a police officer in one-on-one basketball.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.