autism temperature regulation

Autism Tips for Emergency Responders: Temperature Regulation

autism temperature regulationGetting my son to wear a coat in the winter takes an act of Congress, regardless of the frigid outside temperatures. I used to think he was lazy, or perhaps that the material of the coat bothered him (he has a multitude of sensory processing issues and I often have to make sure his shirts are tagless and socks are seamless). Yet, here we are in the midst of an Atlanta summer and for some reason he prefers turtlenecks and heavy sweatpants, despite the array of shorts and t-shirts he owns. What’s going on?

In addition to sensory overwhelm and sensitivity to sounds, lights, smells, and textures, many people on the autism spectrum also have difficulty with temperature regulation.

How does temperature regulation work?

Aspie writer Jeannie Davide-Rivera describes it perfectly as:

…an automated body system that regulates the body’s core temperature in response to outside stimuli. The temperature of the body is regulated by neural feedback mechanisms in the brain, which operate primarily through the hypothalamus. It has the remarkable capacity for regulating the body’s core temperature that keeps your body temperature somewhere between 98F and 100F. When your body is exposed to heat or cold conditions this system balances your internal temperature with the temperature outside.

Why is this an issue for emergency responders?

When you interact with an autistic person that may be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to heat or cold, it creates several issues. First off, recognizing temperature regulation issues in a patient can be tricky. Picture someone peeling off their clothing in the dead of winter, in the face of freezing weather (yes, it DOES get cold in the south!).

What about someone on the playground wearing several layers of clothing when it’s 96 degrees outside? It looks rather suspicious. What’s the first thing you would think as an emergency responder? Drugs? Mental illness?

Not necessarily.

Children AND adults with autism may not feel or experience temperatures the same way we do. They’re acting out what feels natural to them because of temperature regulation issues. Additionally, medical conditions and medications can interfere with the body’s ability to cool itself or to maintain a fluid/electrolyte balance. Couple this with impaired communication and decreased body awareness, and you may witness someone going downhill quickly with no obvious cause.

As we are dealing with these ‘Hotlanta’ wet blanket days right now, hyperthermia is a huge risk. It’s important to recognize the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke as rapidly as possible and start treatment right away, regardless of how a patient is dressed or how “disconnected” from our logical, neurotypical world they may seem.

Symptoms to look out for:

  • NOT SWEATING
  • Red, hot, dry skin
  • An extremely high body temperature (above 103°F)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Rapid and unusually strong pulse
  • Shallow, noisy breathing
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Nausea, with or without vomiting

Be aware of comorbid medical conditions when treating an autistic patient. There are many conditions that present with autism spectrum disorders such as epilepsy/seizure disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder, bowel disease, immune disorders, OCD, Tourette syndrome, sleep disorders and more.

autism sexual abuse

Beyond Bullying: Autism and Sexual Abuse

autism sexual abuseI’m a petite single female working in public safety. I’m strong; I lift heavy weights six days a week, I run every other day, I do MMA workouts on the days I don’t run, and I take boxing classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I own firearms and I’m trained to properly handle them. I have an advanced alarm system, security cameras, and two giant huskies that share my residence. I’m situationally aware of my surroundings at all times.

And yet…

I receive a daily assortment of inappropriate advances from what I affectionately term as “creepers.”

I’ve also been a victim of sexual assault four times in my adult life.

You know what? It sucks. Big time. It’s not without its permanent price. So if this can happen to a strong and socially aware neurotypical female, where does that leave my beautiful 19 year-old Aspie daughter? How is she to navigate the Land of Creepers? How is she to protect herself?

Communication alone is a challenge. While I can read into seemingly “innocent” texts from my band of creepers and see there is intent (and they think I don’t! Ha!), my daughter is not so adept at underlying messages, innuendos and body language. It’s not just about someone snatching her on the streets; the reality is that she is likely to innocently get herself entangled in a bad situation by simply not picking up on social cues.

Why are they at risk?

A study done of 55,000 children showed a child with any type of intellectual disability was four times more likely to be sexually abused than a child without disabilities (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000). While no specific numbers exist for individuals with autism, research suggests that this population is extremely vulnerable.

Those on the spectrum are generally taught compliance from a very young age, making them easy targets for criminals. Combine that with difficulty picking up social cues and understanding other individuals’ intentions, and the end result is vulnerability to a range of crimes.

Hard to spot

According to Special Ed Abuse, nearly one in six autistic children have been sexually abused.

Recognizing it can be extremely challenging, as communication deficits mean that a child’s report could be unreliable. Typical signs of sexual abuse in children MAY be an autistic child’s baseline behavior. These signs include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Angry outbursts
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Propensity to run away

Since self-reporting of abuse or trauma by individuals with ASD may not occur, it is important that family members, caregivers, behavior support specialists, and other professionals in the child’s life receive training on potential behavioral changes that may be associated with trauma exposure so they may assist in reporting and obtaining services.

Signs of abuse that are unique to autism may include exacerbation of social anxiety, remembering or re-enactment, changes in the child’s baseline behavior, and new onset or increased self-injurious behaviors.

Also keep in mind that when encountering professionals within the criminal justice system, persons with ASD may not respond to verbal instructions, they may avoid eye contact, appear argumentative, become agitated and anxious, appear to be under the influence of narcotics, or only repeat what is being said to them. These behaviors should not be interpreted as deliberate, disrespectful or hostile.

They may also be fixated on a particular object or topic and may ask repeated questions, speak in a monotone voice with unusual pronunciations, and be honest to the point of rudeness. They may not understand the extent of the trauma they experienced, nor the expectations of assisting within the criminal justice system.

Most police departments have a Crisis Intervention Team, which staffs a psych nurse and an officer trained in psychiatric crisis management. They have many tools available to them that other officers may not. If you suspect autism, seek assistance from department assets such as a mobile crisis team or unit early on in the legal intervention, as they can help identify if the person may require special assistance from psychiatric professionals.

For more information about getting your department trained and certified in autism safety, click HERE.

Nonverbal Autism

7 Tips for Communicating with a Nonverbal Autistic Patient

Nonverbal Autism

Just because a person can’t speak doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.

Communication is a basic human need. In fact, it falls fairly predominantly in the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, under “Social Belonging.” The ability to communicate makes it possible to exchange opinions, thoughts and meanings, enabling us to express ourselves and show our own points of view.

Autistic people with little to no speech have the same communication needs as the rest of us! As I teach in my autism training for emergency responders course, there is a huge misconception that being a nonverbal autistic is synonymous with “low functioning” autism, or even having a low IQ. In my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Nonverbal people often have extremely vibrant imaginations, intense emotions, passionate interests and a brilliant intellect. They just have to work a little harder and more creatively to convey these things in a neurotypical society that relies on spoken words and often-misread body language.

Communication on scene

When you arrive on a scene as an emergency responder, communication with your patient is vital. Where I work, I frequently face language barriers, making it challenging to obtain key information in order to treat the patient with the right protocols and do no further harm. The situation is magnified because the patients and their family members typically don’t understand what I am asking them, nor can they communicate what they are feeling and experiencing, and what medical interventions they need from me.

That’s one advantage (and another debunked myth!) of communicating with a nonverbal person on scene – nonverbal DOES NOT EQUAL non-hearing. This is a huge plus when your patient understands what you are asking.

Knowing this, here are some tips to communicate with a nonverbal autistic on scene:

  1. Use the caregiver. Find out from the caregiver if you can: what is their primary means of communication – what kinds of body language are they familiar with? Do they clap for yes? Do they use sign language? Gestures? Most times, family members are a WEALTH of knowledge on scene when it comes to autism.
  2. Seeing eye to eye. People with autism may not give you direct eye contact, but simply sitting or kneeling so you are at the same level as your patient speaks VOLUMES in gaining rapport. Sometimes that’s all it takes to help alleviate the fear of an emergency situation, therefore helping to get the person out of defense mode and more able to communicate with you in their own way.
  3. Narrate. It may sound silly, but even if you can’t communicate with your patient and get no response whatsoever, remember THEY CAN HEAR YOU. Unless it’s a critical patient, I will always announce exactly what I’m about to do to a patient, and continue to ask questions as I’m doing it, looking for any sign of understanding in their face or body language.
  4. Offer choices. Asking a nonverbal patient, “Do you want X (and point to or hold up what you are referring to) or Y? (point to or hold up the alternative choice)” can open lines of communication and help them feel more in control of the situation. Remember, the less they feel in control of what’s happening around them, the more a complete shutdown of the nervous system is imminent.
  5. Pen and paper. Simple, simple, simple… always keep a notebook and pen in your pocket! Sometimes even adults with autism that are verbal lose their ability to communicate under distress. The opportunity to write down their needs can make the scene run safely and smoothly.
  6. The Sign Expressions Language Mini Chart for Emergencies. This mini chart includes photos, words, and phrases to help facilitate communication during an emergency, including HELP, INTERPRETER, ALLERGIES, the Alphabet (Spanish and English) and Numbers. Our trilingual sign language mini chart is pocket sized (4″ by 6″) and include many important words to use during an emergency situation by First Responders, Health Care Professionals, and many others.
  7. Phone it in. Okay, not literally, but… our smartphones have become almost necessary on scene these days. They help us with language interpretation, drug calculations, pregnancy due dates, and of course, patient reports en route to the hospital. It may be helpful to also have an app for nonverbal autistics on your phone. Here is a list of apps available through iTunes, as well as Google Play.

Over to you…

Have you encountered a nonverbal autistic child or adult on scene? What worked for you? Share by commenting below!

autism wandering

Emergency Responders: 7 Things You NEED to Know About Autism Wandering

autism wandering

As an autism mom, worry and fear can be my constant companions. My entire life can change in the blink of an eye, especially because my child wanders.

My son has been wandering since he could walk.

One particular time, he was playing with the hose in the front yard. Wearing no shirt or shoes, he didn’t have a care in the world. He loves water. Seconds earlier, I had checked on him through the kitchen window and he was fine. Then his sister went outside and they got into a small scuffle… she told him to “get lost.”

People with autism are very literal. That’s exactly what he did.

In less than two minutes he was GONE.

I activated 911 and had the whole neighborhood searching for him. 3-1/2 hours later he was found several blocks away under a bush. I shook him and hugged him and asked what on earth he was thinking! He only replied, “My sister said get lost.”

My son, now 14, is nine inches taller than me, has a mustache and wears men’s large sized clothing. While he wanders more “online” these days than out of the house, it is still challenging to keep him safe, especially if we go to public events and gatherings.

I have multiple stories of “close calls” like this. As an emergency responder, I’ve been tasked to find missing children at festivals and responded to autism-related EMS calls. If you’re a first responder, here are 7 things you need to know about wandering.

  1. It can happen in an instant. Just like my story, thousands of autism parents have literally “blinked” and had their child disappear on them. It is beyond terrifying. Know that children with autism are not being manipulative, calculating, or trying to get out of a test at school… something catches their eye, or they are experiencing sensory overwhelm, and they run.
  2. It’s more common than you think. The National Autism Association cites that 49% of autistic people are prone to wandering away from a safe environment, which is nearly four times higher than their neurotypical siblings. Two in three parents of elopers reported their missing children had a “close call” with a traffic injury. Wandering was ranked among the most stressful ASD behaviors by 58% of parents of elopers. 62% of families of children who elope were prevented from attending/enjoying activities outside the home due to fear of wandering. 40% of parents have suffered sleep disruption due to fear of elopement.
  3. They are drawn to water. In 2009, 2010, and 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91% total U.S. deaths reported in children with an ASD ages 14 and younger subsequent to wandering/elopement. In my Autism Training courses I teach parents and emergency responders to search water first if a person with autism goes missing. This includes rivers, pools, lakes, ponds, and even fountains. For more information on WHY they are drawn to water, read this article.
  4. They may not seek help. Don’t assume wandering is a crisis or emergency to someone with autism. They may be perfectly happy in their own little world and not seek assistance just because they are “lost.” I’ve seen cases where an autistic child was hungry, walked into a strange family’s house and sat down at the dinner table! If you ARE searching for a missing person with autism, don’t discount looking in tight spaces or odd locations simply because a reasonable person wouldn’t go there. I’ve witnessed children found between mattresses behind a dumpster and inside a hay bale.
  5. They may be nonverbal. Even if a child (or adult!) is typically verbal, under the duress of an emergency they may not be able to communicate their needs. In fact, over one-third of autistic people that wander cannot communicate their name or address. Look for alternate IDs, such as bracelets, shoelace tags, phone apps, or QR codes to help you identify someone and get their medical history and caregiver contact information stat.
  6. If there’s a reason, it probably seems trivial to you. The other night, at approximately 4 am during my shift, my ambulance was parked at a convenience store. My partner and I were standing outside, enjoying the fact that we finally got to stop for a long-awaited cup of coffee, when a 15 year-old boy walked up to us. He asked if we could call his mom and apologize for him for not doing the dishes. He said, “Please tell her I’m sorry and I want to come home.” I saw him tapping his index fingers together repeatedly (“stimming“), recognized some of his other behaviors, and immediately identified him as autistic. After some careful questions, we discovered that he failed to do the dishes 12 hours ago and was so upset that he left home. He had been wandering the streets of Atlanta and riding local trains on and off since 4 pm that afternoon. Luckily, we were able to contact his parents and they immediately came to pick him up. They both cried tears of joy that he was found safely.
  7. Parents may be afraid to call 911. The parents from the situation above had been driving around all night looking for their son. They told us that they were, “…about to call 911” when they got our phone call. As a responder, you are probably thinking, “WHY DID YOU WAIT SO LONG!” But as a parent it is scary. You want to believe they are right around the corner. You want to believe they’re hiding in the house somewhere, playing a terrible joke on you. You want to believe you can handle it yourself before getting public safety involved. There is a stigma around “losing” a child. Law enforcement doesn’t yet understand all the nuances and variables of autism. I’m not saying parents are RIGHT to think and feel this way, I’m just saying these are thoughts that go through our mind. It does not necessarily indicate abuse or neglect, so please, as a responder, consider the big picture and dig a little deeper if you are involved in a situation involving a wanderer.

For more information on autism training for emergency responders, wandering, or safety tips, contact Debi@SpiritOfAutism.org.

autism echolalia

Autism Tips for Emergency Responders: Stop Echoing Me!

autism echolaliaHave you ever had that one annoying sibling when you were growing up that would torture you all afternoon by repeating EVERY. SINGLE. THING. YOU. SAID? No matter what you did, you couldn’t get them to break. It was like Chinese water torture.

Whether an autistic person is verbal or nonverbal, you may encounter the same behavior on a scene… from an adult. You ask them for their name, some ID, and other typical questions, and all you get back are echoes of what you’re asking. What’s your first reaction? “This smart *** is being non-compliant! WTH!”

I assure you, even if you witnessed them speaking in complete sentences prior to your standard questioning, the anxiety and distress an autistic person experiences during an encounter with public safety can result in the loss of their ability to articulate at all.

It may appear that they are being disrespectful but they are NOT. They are trying to communicate the only way they know how. It’s called echolalia.

What Exactly is Echolalia?

Echolalia is the repetition of phrases, words or parts of words.  Naturally, younger children, while learning to talk, will “parrot” what they hear as part of the process. That’s not what I’m referring to.

There are two types of echolalia. You may be on scene with a teen or adult that is repeating back everything you are asking them instead of giving you direct answers. This is called “Immediate Echolalia.” For example, if you say, “Do you have any ID?” the person may immediately reply with, “Do you have any ID?” It will typically be in the same tone and inflection that you used.

By repeating back words, the person is actually demonstrating that they can hear you accurately, but may not immediately comprehend what you are saying.

According to friendshipcircle.org, some adults with autism explain that immediate echolalia is a way of communicating, “I heard what you said, and I’m still processing it.”  Immediate echolalia is an attempt to remain in a conversation and give an on-topic answer, before the meaning of the conversation is fully grasped.

How do you support increased comprehension? Use visual aids, and involve as many senses as possible, but be careful not to overload them with too much sensory input. Also be aware that if you are offering two choices and the person verbalizes the second choice, they may be REPEATING the last thing you said, not actually answering your question or making the choice.

Delayed Echolalia

Back to the scene, you may ask, “Do you have any ID?” and the person may respond, “Cheeseburger,” or a punchline from a joke or TV show. This is called “Delayed Echolalia.” A person with autism typically likes to memorize and recite catch phrases, verses, portions of historical speeches, or funny scenes from their favorite commercial or movie. Unlike a neurotypical person that will retrieve a funny one-liner from a movie and throw it out for humorous effect in context, delayed echolalia will rarely be relevant to the conversation at all.

My son seems to have a new catch phrase almost monthly. We’ll be walking the dogs together and a neighbor will wave and say, “How are you?” My son might reply, “I am a person.” because that’s what he’s been saying all month, regardless of what the conversation entails. It will be his answer to everything until he finds a new catch phrase to repeat.

You should hear the variety of responses we get to that ;)

Sometimes delayed echolalia occurs because it’s calming the person’s nervous system, a form of self-stimulatory behavior. Typically, however, it stems from wanting to participate in conversation but being unable to fully understand the content of what’s being discussed. 

As easy as it is to assume non-compliance, it’s critical to realize that both versions of echolalia represent a desire for inclusion in conversation.

Share in the comments below if you’ve experienced echolalia with anyone before!

autism personal space

Autism: Don’t Stand So Close to Me

autism personal spacePicture this: you respond to a call for a 26 y/o male “not acting right” (that’s about the extent of information WE get from dispatch, anyway ;) ). You arrive on scene and are immediately approached by a 5’9” 230-lb male who won’t make eye contact or respond to his name. He proceeds to get too close, won’t slow down or stop on your command, and maybe even reaches out and tries to touch your arm.

As an EMS provider or law enforcement officer, this situation would immediately be perceived as an aggressive threat and could go south very fast.

Regarding body proximity, responders are often faced with the reactionary gap – the human factors formula that compares action vs. reaction – when assessing situations like this on scene. The closer an assailant is to you, the less time you have to defensively react to any aggressive behaviors or actions.

When an emergency responder experiences a threat, it takes on average .58 seconds to assess and determine if the threat is real, then an additional .56 to 1.0 seconds to make a response decision. We as providers have to fall upon one of five possible responses to threat: defend, disengage, posture, hyper-vigilance or submission. I’m sure you can figure out which one most public safety professionals embrace.

So what if the person was autistic? What if they didn’t understand where their body ends and space begins? What if body proximity, spatial awareness and proprioceptive dysfunction came into play and they had no malicious intent and no idea their actions were perceived as threatening?

Does that mean you should leave yourself unprotected or allow these behaviors on scene? Of course not. But let me explain.

There are four main categories of proxemics:

  • Intimate Distance (touching to 2 ft)
  • Personal Distance (2-4 ft)
  • Social Distance (4-12 ft)
  • Public Distance (>12 ft)

Although seemingly effortless to most people, judging the right distance to stand from someone is a complex and dynamic skill. It can depend on many factors, such as your relationship to the other person, your age, gender, emotions, and culture. Your body proximity is a form of nonverbal communication that, in turn, says a lot to another person.  Standing too close to someone can absolutely communicate aggression.

Why This Is an Issue

The Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) compared the scores of 766 children with autism against 766 of their unaffected brothers and sisters on a questionnaire of autistic social behaviors. An overwhelming 79 percent of autistic children “were less aware of being too close and more prone to personal space invasions” than their neurotypical siblings.  Though it seemed to improve with age, it continued to affect teenagers and young adults. Those with spatial issues were more likely to:

  • Stand too close to others
  • Touch others in an unusual or inappropriate way
  • Walk in between two people who are talking
  • Be unaware they are talking too loudly or making too much noise

This behavior is often done on automatic pilot and not self-monitored.

Proprioception and Spatial Awareness

Proprioception refers to the sensory input and feedback that tells us about movement and body position. “Receptors” are located within our muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissues.

If this proprioceptive sense is not receiving or interpreting input correctly it is referred to as PROPRIOCEPTIVE DYSFUNCTION.

Spatial awareness is part of our overall perception. Since perception is the organization and interpretation of sensory stimuli from our environment, autistic people would need to have adequate body awareness to be able to form the relationship of their body with the stimuli and objects within that space.

My son has tremendous struggles when it comes to this. Not only does he have to constantly touch the wall when walking in public, he perpetually “hovers,” stands too close to people, touches them without invitation, and even crashes into them. This is due to his nervous system craving proprioceptive input and his inability to fully perceive where he is in relationship to his surroundings. At home, we use a hula-hoop to continually demonstrate personal space. While he has made significant progress, it is something we must address daily.

What scares me is that my son is a BIG child. His simple lack of spatial awareness might cause him to be severely injured or incapacitated if his behaviors are misinterpreted, especially during a heated situation or crisis.

What Can You Do On Scene?

If you identify someone as autistic on scene, whether by the family’s information or from the tools you learned in my autism training, try to keep this information in the back of your mind during your scene size up. Know there is a possibility of someone being a ‘space invader’ and that it might not be an aggressive or threatening action.

I am not telling you to put your guard down and allow someone into your personal space AT ALL. But awareness goes a long way. When you start putting the picture together that someone might have spatial awareness issues or proprioception dysfunction, try putting your arm out and stating, “Stay at arm’s length.” Use clear, concise phrases that have only one meaning, such as “Stop there” while holding your arm out.

The combination of the visual cue and clear commands could truly go a long way in stopping a situation from being misinterpreted and rapidly escalating out of control.

image courtesy of Cam Hytche

Lessons I Learned Encountering a Lost Autistic Child at the Air Show

A Guest Post By Austin Harris, Emergency Medical First Responder,
Autism Specialist, CERT Instructor

image courtesy of Cam Hytche

image courtesy of Cam Hytche

Air shows can be fun for kids of all ages… but add autism to the mix and you may have a crisis in the waiting.

I worked as a medical first responder at an air show earlier this year that and learned some valuable lessons after encountering a wandering autistic child. First let’s start with some details:

The call came in to the first aid team from family members that their sibling had gotten away from them, which is somewhat of a normal occurrence at the air show each year. Unfortunately, we were overwhelmed in first aid at the time with several cases so I was not immediately brought in on this one.

My partners started the normal procedure for a lost child while I finished up my call. 30 minutes passed, and by the time I was finished the child still was missing. We were still getting information from the family members, who were kids themselves. Something just did not seem right; the family acted very nervous and seemed to not be telling us something. So I asked the question: “Is the child autistic?”

To our astonishment the answer was, ”Yes he is.” This changed the situation dramatically.

This is where lesson one comes in: interviews. When someone goes missing, it is vital at first contact to ask caregivers about the possibility of special needs and what type of conditions they may have. Brothers and sisters usually have some idea of what kind of needs their siblings may have. With me, my sister knows I am a heart patient and that I’m autistic. She can tell you a lot about my condition, the key is to ask.

It took several hours to locate the child – we had radioed all parties involved in the search the crucial information that the child was autistic. Finally one of our police officers made first contact and was able to bring the child back to be reunited. It had been a hot day and since several hours passed since the child went missing we knew there would be some medical issues.

As an autism specialist, I made primary contact with police as soon as they brought him to us. I identified that I was an autism specialist and would take the lead with the patient. This brings me to lesson two: in the event you have a specialist or officers trained in autism on site let them take the lead, because they can provide specific insight and support, where other team members may not be able to.

Once in my care I took the child to his family and I had two other team members from the Hope Animal Assisted Crisis, who had their K9 crisis intervention and therapy dogs with them, to provide care and comfort. This was the key to it all. The child did not open up to us immediately but opened up to the dogs first. This is my third lesson: use your resources and trust your team members – even your canine team members! They, too, can help you help your patient.

I’m so glad the situation ended on a positive note. It could have had an entirely different outcome. I learned a few lessons from this experience.  

Missing autistic child lesson 1:

When someone goes missing, it’s crucial at first contact to ask caregivers about the possibility of special needs and what type of medical conditions they may have. Even brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles or close family friends usually have some idea of what kind of needs the family member may have.

Missing autistic child lesson 2:

Autism specialists or autism trained officers are needed on site at large events and should be given the primary responder role because they can provide specific insight and support which other team members may not have.

Missing autistic child lesson 3:

Use your resources and trust your team members – even your canine members! They can help you establish a rapport that will pave the way for you to communicate with and provide care to your patient.

 

pokemon go safety tip

Autism Safety Tips for Playing Pokémon GO

pokemon go safety tip

image courtesy of imgur.com

Sometimes, autistic people can be a bit rigid in their behaviors and averse to new experiences. My daughter, especially, who has a high level of social anxiety, has a really hard time with any type of change or new experience. My son is more open to new opportunities, but due to being more susceptible to sensory overload our options outside the home are more limited.

Regardless of the specific reasons, the result remains the same: they are less adventurous or open to starting conversations. According to this articlePokémon GO seems to be successfully encouraging some individuals with ASD to explore the world a bit — and, just as importantly, to engage in conversation with other Pokémon fans in the process. I say individuals because we all know it’s not just kids playing this new viral sensation ;)

On the flip side, an EMT, I’ve already witnessed some nightmare calls as a result of this game. I’ve responded to a couple of motor vehicle accidents, a pedestrian vs. auto, and an assault (mugging) – all directly related to someone playing Pokémon GO and NOT PAYING ATTENTION.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover a Pokémon GO Safety Checklist from Safe Kids DeKalb County whilst I was scrolling through my Nextdoor news feed. Here are the key takeaways from these safety tips:

Be aware of your surroundings and watch where you are going. Make sure you pay attention to where you are walking. I never advocate constantly staring down at your phone regardless. It is a great way to announce to predators that you are an easy target. Get into the habit of frequently looking up while you are on the phone. Situational awareness!!

Make sure somebody knows where you are going. Evidently the nature of Pokémon GO is that Pidgeys, Zubats and Weedles (oh my!) keep popping up on the map, a little farther away each time. That means you or your child could see another Pokémon just a little farther off and venture away into unsafe territory. Wandering is already an issue for so many autism families.

If you play at night, only walk in well-lit areas. Pokémon pop up everywhere, at all hours. It’s fine to find Pokémon in the park or on the street, but stay off other people’s property and vacant, boarded up buildings and homes. Don’t venture into sketchy areas because you are tempted by a rare Dratini sighting!

Do not drive a vehicle, ride a bicycle, or skateboard while playing. You should always hunt Pokémon on foot. It’s illegal to text and drive, so PLEASE don’t try to catch these invisible creatures while doing any of the above activities.

By the way, many of the calls we have seen have involved adults playing the game, not just kids. These tips are for everyone!

SIDE NOTE: The creator of Pokémon is autistic! My son proudly did a class presentation on Satoshi Tajiri in 2nd grade as soon as he found out they shared autism in common.

You can download the Safe Kids Dekalb County Pokémon GO Safety tips here!

autism no eye contact

Autism Tips for Emergency Responders: No Eye Contact

autism no eye contact

image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I read an awesome article on TheMighty.com that asked 16 different people on the autism spectrum to describe why making eye contact can be difficult for them. Any insights like this help me be a better parent to my autistic teens and a better educator for emergency responders.

Lack of eye contact may be considered rude or antisocial to those who don’t understand it. However, in an emergency situation that involves first responders, it can be misconstrued as evidence of guilt, non-compliance, or even altered mental status, all of which can put an emergency responder on the defensive and potentially lead to a call going downhill fast.

The Mighty asked their readers with autism who find eye contact difficult to share a description of what it’s like for them. I think some of these quotes are really helpful for emergency responders to be able to understand and identify what’s really going on when someone with autism cannot look at them. The full article can be found here, but some of my favorite descriptions are:

“It’s abstract to me and can be draining. Looking at someone else in the eye means I am taking in everything about them as a person, and I become overloaded. It can disrupt any thought or speaking process I have going on and zaps my energy quickly.” — Laura Spoerl

“To me, eye contact feels like I’m being stared at, like I’m being scrutinized and judged. It makes me uncomfortable because I feel like I’m under immense pressure, and the tension builds and builds until finally I have to look away. It feels almost confrontational, which causes me a lot of anxiety.”— Emma Wozny

“It can feel like you’re standing there naked. It’s very difficult to form a coherent thought with all of this going on in your head. ” — Megan Klein

“When I make eye contact, the world around me blocks out. I can only process the immense pain and discomfort that comes to my brain. This pain goes if I look away.” — Lucy Clapham

“For me it can be a physical pain; it feels like burning with too many emotions, and I just can’t take it in all at once.” — Rosie Howard

“There’s plenty enough for us to concentrate on mid-conversation without the demand to do something which, quite frankly, feels very unnatural to many of us. You can have my eye contact, or you can have my concentration. Choose whichever one you value more.”– Chris Bonnello, from Autistic Not Weird

“Eye contact is hard for me because I am easily overwhelmed by lots of different input. When I am trying to listen, follow, or contribute to a conversation or just manage all my different sensitivities, it is easiest, most comfortable and least painful for me to not make eye contact. I listen and focus better when I am not making eye contact.” — Erin McKinney

My co-trainer at Spirit of Autism, Austin Harris, told me what it’s like for him, and how he’s learned to manage it:

“Eye contact is difficult for me because it makes me very nervous when I’m being looked at directly. It makes me feel uncomfortable in an unexplainable way. One tool I use to combat this is quick contact by looking at multiple people and objects. This works especially well for public speaking and teaching where you need to talk to the group instead of one person. What I do is I make brief contact every so often with different individuals so I am not focusing on just one person’s eyes.”

My daughter shared this with me about her experience:

“If I’m coming up on a person about to pass me, I drop my gaze immediately. If I happen to accidentally lock eyes with them, I feel a tinge of panic. What are they thinking? Are they thinking about me at all? Did I rub them the wrong way? I’d rather be invisible to them, and chances are likely that they thought nothing of it, but I remember it.

There’s something very uncomfortable about looking directly into somebody’s eyes while they’re staring at you. I don’t know what’s going on and I’m trying to evaluate the situation. And how long are you supposed to keep eye contact, anyway? If it’s too short, it may come across as dismissive; if it’s too long, it’s way too awkward. It’s a lot of processing and confusion that goes on underneath the surface in a matter of seconds, and when there are responses and replies expected of you on top of that, it gets to be overwhelming sometimes.”

I think the biggest takeaways for emergency responders when it comes to lack of eye contact are:

  1. If someone with autism isn’t looking at you directly it does not mean they aren’t listening.
  2. It can be physically painful for an autistic person to maintain eye contact with you.
  3. A person with autism may need to avoid eye contact in order to process and focus on what you’re saying to them.

Rather than demanding that someone look at you when you are speaking, it may be helpful to simply ask a person that’s not keeping eye contact with you if they are listening, if they understand you, if they can repeat back what you just said, or even if they’d prefer to communicate by writing.

Justin Stim

Autism Tips for Emergency Responders: It’s Not Altered Mental Status

Justin StimI’m going to be boldly honest right now about how things are for us sometimes, because I believe it can help responders understand more about interacting with autistic individuals.

This is my son…

…Flapping his hands and banging his head because emergency vehicles passed by with lights and sirens, which also set off the neighborhood dogs

…Acting out more than usual because I recently went from a predictable day job to working 13-14 hour night shifts twice a week. Sometimes I sleep during the day on my off days and sometimes I keep “normal” hours. Our whole world has been turned upside down.

…Sporting wild and unkempt hair because haircuts are extremely painful and autism + puberty makes personal hygiene a daily battle

…Wearing no shoes outside in the middle of the winter because he doesn’t feel temperatures or pain the way we do (not for long periods of time, I assure you!)

…Donning sweatpants and a loose shirt that has been stretched and has holes in it from a new stimming habit (biting, stretching and poking holes in his clothing while wearing it when he feels anxious or stressed)

Getting closer to him reveals an odoriferous cocktail of 13 year-old boy… scents, occasionally worse due to severe GI issues and a history of bowel obstructions that make him terrified to go to the bathroom until his body forces it out.

If he were with a sitter while I was on shift, or if his older sister called 911 because he was “acting out” or “not acting right,” what would you think if you approached my son on scene based on the things I mentioned above?

A 5’9”, 220 pound THIRTEEN year-old male, outside with no shoes or winter clothes on, flapping his arms, banging his head with his hands, refusing eye contact and answering all questions with unintelligible verbal noises and repetitive phrases such as “Cheeseburger…”

Altered mental status protocol? Get the restraints ready? Probably.

My son would never intentionally hurt anyone, but if he were already in a distressed state and was suddenly surrounded by strangers with radios blaring who were starting to get frustrated and louder because he doesn’t seem to be cooperating the way they feel he should… he would most likely fight those trying to control him.

We must recognize that autism is not actually “altered mental status” because it’s not a mental illness.

It’s not a behavior problem or an excuse for noncompliance.

The CDC says it’s a complex developmental disorder and the National Autism Association says it’s a bio-neurological disability. And with 1 in 64 boys in Georgia diagnosed with autism, the likelihood that you’ll encounter it in the field increases each day.

The behaviors I described above can – on some days – be normal baseline behavior for my son. He stims and hits himself when he’s overwhelmed. He won’t shower unless I make him (or is that just a boy thing?). He won’t voluntarily use the bathroom unless I help him.

Does the knowledge that he has autism mean we as responders shouldn’t keep ourselves safe? Should we forget the restraints and be more “understanding” of his actions?

If you’ve been following my work long enough, you know I NEVER advocate ignoring your protocols or putting yourself in harm’s way. Keep yourself safe always!

But when all else checks out (blood sugar is normal, negative for narcotics or alcohol, no trauma, infection, seizure or stroke…) we’re left scratching our heads and treating someone like my son as a combative psych patient.

What kinds of questions and actions would help, assuming our safety has been established?

Of course we want to know about allergies and medical history, especially since autism often presents with numerous co-morbid medical conditions which may include: allergies, asthma, epilepsy, digestive disorders, persistent viral infections, sensory integration dysfunction, sleeping disorders, and more.

But knowing some common signs and behaviors of autism can give you more tools and knowledge for your assessment. A different set of questions can yield very different results (and gain cooperation from the patient!). Questions for the caregiver such as:

  • Is this normal behavior for him?
  • I see him holding his ears. What sensory issues affect him the most? (Does he hear things louder than normal, do lights bother him, etc.)
  • How does he typically (and best) communicate?
  • Can we move him to a quiet area to self-calm and have 1-2 personnel only question him?
  • Can his caregiver or trusted family member stay with him to help keep him calm?
  • What helps when meltdowns occur?
  • How long do they last?
  • Is there an attachment item that would help him feel better?
  • Have there been recent changes to routines and schedules that might be causing this behavior?
  • There may be no allergies, but what about food or drug sensitivities?
  • Could he have ingested a non-food item (PICA syndrome – chalk, paint, etc.)

If there is no caregiver, try giving the person a pen and paper to write their needs or chief complaint. Even completely verbal adults with autism will quickly lose the ability to speak during meltdowns.

Also look for alternative IDs and smartphone apps that can provide critical information fast.

One of the biggest challenges we may face is when there is no diagnosis and the caregiver may not even suspect autism. That’s why I teach emergency responders how to recognize signs and behaviors of autism whether or not the patient or caregiver provides that information. Sometimes just understanding what’s going on – even if we can’t change our actions – can make a world of difference for the person experiencing distress.