Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2017.

Clarifying Autism

A conversation with Bill Cannata on educating first responders about autism


A FORMER FIREFIGHTER AND ADVOCATE for educating first responders about autism, Bill Cannata is one of two trainers for the Autism Society of America’s Safe and Sound program. Cannata, who has spoken on autism at two NFPA conferences, is also the program director of the Massachusetts-based Autism and Law Enforcement Coalition (ALEC). NFPA Journal spoke with Cannata about the importance of teaching first responders about autism, as well as educating people with autism about fire safety. April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Why should first responders pay attention to autism?

There are a lot of people with autism. About one in 188 children in the country had autism when we started [ALEC]. Now it’s one in 68. With the numbers increasing, it’s more likely first responders are going to see calls for service involving people with autism.

What do you attribute that dramatic increase to?

No known cause for autism has been discovered yet, but the higher rates have been attributed to better screening and awareness programs.

What makes individuals with autism more at-risk during fires or other emergencies?

They often don’t realize they’re in trouble. They don’t understand the danger of fire. You may end up with a resist to rescue. They won’t leave the safety of their home. Also, there are a lot of sensory issues going on with people with autism. Touch can be painful to some people with autism, so their reactions to touch are going to be different than neuro-typical people.

What are the most common calls for service involving individuals with autism?

Half of the people diagnosed with autism are prone to wandering. And half of the wanderers are going toward water sources—water is just a big attraction for a lot of them. Because of the trainings, we’ve actually had agencies call us and say they took that approach—to check the water immediately—and they found the individuals before they got in trouble. Rescue from heights is another one we see a lot.

Are individuals with autism getting the fire safety education they need?

It’s definitely an area we need to expand upon. In a lot of schools, people with autism are not being trained during fire drills. When there’s a drill, schools take these kids outside beforehand because of sensory issues related to the alarms. That’s sending the wrong message. These children can learn. We just have to take our existing plans and modify them to fit the needs of an individual with autism.

What can go wrong if that training is missed?

There have been several cases where children with autism have been rescued from fires but ran back into the burning building because they didn’t know what to do. So again, a lot of that is a lack of fire safety education throughout the years. We start to lose that education once we get out of grade school, but it’s really important to keep it up, especially for people with autism.

What are some steps parents or caretakers who look after individuals with autism can take to ensure safety?

They can visit their local police officers and firefighters to get to know each other, so they’ll know who and where you are. If you can have those interactions before emergencies, we find that the results are better. Being proactive and planning is the best thing to do.

What should first responders do when responding to a call involving an individual with autism?

You should adjust the sensory environment to get the best result. Try to minimize personnel as best as you can. Basically, just slow the incident down. A lot of these calls are going to take a little more time to just work with the individual so you don’t upset them.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: ThinkStock