May 20--MILFORD -- Jason Dorval showed a room full of Milford firefighters, police officers and paramedics a photo of his 10-year-old son, Connor, who has both Down syndrome and autism.
Dorval, a firefighter and paramedic in Whately, Mass., was making a point about visible disabilities versus the invisible. Connor's Down syndrome is easy to identify, Dorval said, because it carries certain physical characteristics, such as an upward slant to the eyes and small stature.
"If you saw Connor, you'd recognize the disability right away," he said.
Autism, however, doesn't carry such obvious physical characteristics. That is why Dorval is visiting police and fire departments throughout the country as part of the Massachusetts-based Autism and Law Enforcement Coalition, founded in 2003. The coalition helps train first responders to recognize people with autism and treat them accordingly.
"It's important to recognize a person with autism so they're not misconceived as being noncompliant with fire and police orders, (or) thought to be injured or possibly intoxicated," Dorval said.
On Friday morning, Dorval was at the Milford Fire Rescue Station, training about a dozen firefighters and paramedics to recognize and properly respond to someone with autism.
Autism spectrum disorders, diagnosed in one of every 68 children, are a group of developmental disorders that cause significant social, communication and behavioral problems. Symptoms can include language impairment, social disengagement and sensitivity to light and sound.
Dorval said these symptoms are vague enough that they can be mistaken for a variety of other conditions, including drunkenness. He said some people with autism can be physically aggressive. There have been incidents in which officers perceiving a threat from someone with autism used stun guns, arrested them or even shot them.
But those with autism aren't the only ones at risk. Dorval said if an officer approaches a person with special needs without knowing the situation, "you can get beat up pretty good."
He said one firefighter he met during another training session had been punched in the face because he misread a situation. The firefighter saw a teenager walking unsteadily down the street, and thought he was intoxicated. He asked the teen where he was going, and the young man responded, "Where are you going?"
Dorval said it's not uncommon for people with autism to repeat the last thing they've heard. But the firefighter thought the teen was being belligerent. When he once again asked where the young man was going -- and got the same response -- the firefighter pushed the teenager up against a cruiser that had a light bar. When the lights went off, "the kid flipped out and punched the officer in the face," Dorval said.
Had the firefighter recognized that the teen had autism, he could have defused the situation. Dorval said the young man's unsteady gait and pattern of repeating what the firefighter was saying -- known as echolalia -- were both red flags. He said it's also a good idea to subtly check whether the person in question is wearing a medical bracelet or something else that indicates he or she has special needs.
Dorval told the Milford officers if they think a subject has autism, they need to identify themselves as a "helper" -- in other words, someone who isn't a threat. He also cautioned the officers to use simple commands, such as "sit down" or "wait." Dorval said some people with autism don't respond to complex commands such as "Go sit over there and wait for me."
"Be very blunt," Dorval said. "Very, very direct statements will work."
Friday's session was the second one Dorval has held in Milford, with training scheduled to continue this week. Dorval has conducted training at a handful of other sites in Connecticut, including Norwalk, Westport and West Hartford.