It is almost the anniversary of one of the saddest days in American history. A day when time seemed to have stood still. When the morning started as a day so crisp and clear it was almost too good to be true, yet ended full of darkness. And, the day which I asked myself over and over again…How are First Responders helping people who can’t hear, speak English, or are non-verbal -such as in the case of Autism?
Much has been written about 9/11 except for stories of what happened to those who couldn’t easily communicate with First Responders. A few films were made. Some tangential interviews. Yet, not much was made public about how First Responders communicated ten years ago and how they would, if need be, interact, react and communicate today. A recent publication by SAVEtheCHILDREN.org indicated that many states continue to be without viable plans in place to help special populations, especially children during disasters. I was astonished as from my own personal experience I would have suspected the opposite findings!
Since 2001, I have had the privilege of talking to thousands of First Responder. Most who were intrigued and accepting of the idea that learning sign language (the fourth most common language in the United States) should be a priority for all EMS, Firefighters and Law Enforcement staff. Thousands have now sat in my SIGN LANGUAGE FOR EMERGENCY SITUATIONS workshops to hear about techniques to use during a disaster or medical incident to help a child with Autism, Down Syndrome, or Deafness. The participants have taught me as much as I have shared with them. So while I believe that there is room for improvement, I am certain that progress has been made throughout many regions in the United States including making September Disaster Preparedness Month.
Perhaps many, including myself, have learned these lessons…
1. Communication is key during a disaster or medical emergency. The first ten minutes are crucial. No one is asking to replace an interpreter or translator, but during exceptional circumstances, such as those of 9/11 or recent hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes – safety and help is tantamount.
2. To facilitate communication and help a child who has learning and/or developmental challenges, use people in their surrounding area who many be of assistance to help with interaction between the non-verbal / English speaker and yourself.
3. Gestures can come in handy, although be careful, some gestures may be considered obscene by some cultures.
4. Helping children is not the same as helping adults. They will react differently. Children with Autism may drop and rock, scream, lash out (in fear) and/or flee. The latter is the most dangerous as some new information shows that children who flee often will go to water, thus a child may seek out a pool or pond during a disaster.
5. The first ten minutes of any disaster or medical incident is key. Knowing ten signs (ASL), words in Spanish/ Chinese/ French/ Vietnamese (among others) can save help to evacuate people to safety, find a child, or save a life.
In order to make safety an inclusive priority I have added some resource links below. My biggest wish – we never need to use them as that would mean another disaster or medical crisis has occurred.
Inclusion – Help for Disaster Preparedness
Spirit of Autism by Debi Taylor. Paramedic, mother of a child with Autism
SLINKY- yes, you read it right. One SLINKY can help to transition a child who is fearful or non-verbal from place to place. Children with significant Autism may become engrossed in the shiny and round aspects of this non-personal object and be more willing to go with a First Responder/