Parents, educators, and now emergency responders, have taken part in a conference in Chippewa County to better learn how to interact with people who are on the autism spectrum. The goal was to spread knowledge of autism and autistic behaviors, and to share information on how to effectively interact with people with autism and their families.
Autism is America’s fastest growing disorder. Currently there are some 15,000 diagnosed cases. That number expected to more than double to 40,000 by 2020. Autism typically causes those affected have difficulty socializing with others, communicating verbally or non-verbally, and behaving appropriately in a variety of settings.
Dorie France is the executive director and founder of SPEAKS (Students. Parents, Educators. Alliance. To Know. Special. Education.) Education – which provides training, mentoring, support and advocacy throughout the Upper Peninsula for special needs children and their families. The foundation hosted the training at Kewadin Casinos. France points out that outside of Houghton, Marquette, Sault Ste. Marie and Escanaba, fire departments in the U.P. are all volunteer, “ and there’s a turnover there. People come and go. Our EMS, our fire, our rescue, all of them are volunteers and they might not know a child involved in an accident, or lost, or in a house fire has autism, or any disability, for that matter.”
France says parents of autistic children can register information with their county’s 911 dispatchers. In an emergency, the child’s name will trigger the dispatcher to inform responders of the disability. A sticker on a vehicle or house also informs emergency workers.
Scott Schuelke, a Lansing-based autism safety specialist says Chippewa County, has been very proactive in helping families with children on the autism spectrum. He led the training for first responders in Sault Ste. Marie. He says the number one reason emergency responders are called out for autistic children is because the child has wandered away, “The actual term is called elopement, but you’ll hear the term wanderer or runner. Families go to great depths to keep their loved ones safe. You may encounter where they actually have to lock a family member in at night in a room. You know, 5 or 6 years ago when I was working as a police officer, my red flags would have went up in a minute, but what’s the alternative here? The families have to do that- otherwise their family member walks out in the middle of the night, walks out in the middle of traffic, walks into a swimming pool, a stream, a lake.”
Officials say the number of calls regarding autistic kids is rising. Officer Mike Troyer with the Sault Ste. Marie Police Department says this summer alone he’s encountered 2-3 incidents, “That’s a really high number compared to years past. In the cases they had last summer, there were young children that walked away from the schoolyard that just wandered away. They don’t have any sense of where they should be at a certain time and they just wander away. A lot of times they’re not wearing clothing, or heading towards the water – and that’s a common feature, a common practice too. They’re attracted to water, a lot of them are. It makes it dangerous, with the power canal in town, the river right close by.
Though the children were supervised at home or at school, Troyer says it only takes a second to lose track of them. He says so far all of the cases he’s been called out on ended with the children found safely.