By JOHN HARVEY
Autism is a mental disorder that affects individuals in varying degrees from children to adulthood.
The Autism Society of Central Virginia helped raise awareness Sunday with the inaugural Autism and Hanover First Responders Community Connection Fair held at the Richmond Harley-Davidson in Ashland. More than 100 people approximately 25 first responders came out to support this event, which included demonstrations from the Hanover County EMS and Fire Department as well as the Hanover County Sherriff’s Department.
“This event is an effort to bridge gaps, gain understanding and create stronger relationships between first responders from police, fire and rescue departments and individuals with autism and their families,” said Tammy Burns, Outreach and Program Director for the ASCV. This is our first year doing these events,” Burns said. “Seeing the need for Gruff, the Crime Dog, made an appearance and handed out badges to young kids.
Emergency Medical Service personnel showed kids an instructional video about what they do and their importance in the community. They also handed out tips to parents and a set of guidelines and important numbers in case of an emergency.
Burns said her organization will run three events like this in the greater Richmond area this year. This summer, they held an event in Chesterfield in June and they hope to host another one in November in Colonial Heights. She stressed the importance of these events.
“We have seen how some of the behaviors individuals with autism display can be misunderstood or misinterpreted by the police, other first responders and the public, leading to altercations, injuries, arrests, incarceration ad even tragedy in some cases,” Burns said. “In the event of an emergency, it is important that all members of the family are familiar with the type of rescue personnel that might appear on the scene to help.”
For example, firefighters in uniform might appear scary to someone who has never encountered them before, making some individuals inclined to hide or run from safety. The lights and sirens on some emergency vehicles may also trigger fear and or sensory reactive behaviors for some individuals on the autism spectrum.”
“If a fireman comes to an individual with autisms house, they may retreat,” Burns said. “They may go hide in a closet. They may be afraid of the fireman. This gives them a chance to come out to see what would happen if there is a fire. They’re going to see fireman suit up here. With the police, we hope individuals don’t have interactions with police, but if they do, we want the police to have a way to diagnose a person with autism. For the individual to say, ‘Oh wait, this is not a person that’s trying to hurt me.”
Autism is a disorder that occurs in one out of every 68 children and one out of 42 boys nationally. Burns said that number is consistent in Virginia. “Some individuals can be diagnosed very early, in the toddler years, but some individuals with more verbal skills, tend to be diagnosed later, so we have some individuals that aren’t diagnosed until adulthood,” she said.
Burns said the Autism Society Central Virginia is committed to bring awareness and acceptance in our community. She said that Sunday’s event in Ashland was positive and the importance of the event and activities that were provided.
“Everything we do involves awareness in some way,” she said. “ASCV believes that each person with autism is deserving of a life full of dignity, value and respect and a life in a community where they can pursue options in all aspects of life for individuals on the autism spectrum, at any age and any stage, and their families. “