If you were inside a burning building, what would you do? How would the piercing noise of a smoke alarm make you feel? Would you run out of the building, or would you hide inside? Where would you go? A bathtub? A bed? A closet? If you are a person on the autism spectrum, it’s likely that your instincts and actions would be different from those of a neurotypical person.
Former Willow Grove fire chief Brian Focht knew this because his son, Daniel Focht, was diagnosed with autism at age three—but Brian also realized that many emergency responders, like police, firefighters, or EMTs, might not know how to recognize and effectively respond to a person on the spectrum. So the chief developed Autism and Emergency Services: What You Need To Know, a mobile training program to make sure first responders are equipped to help everyone.
Now, 17-year-old Daniel (who recently graduated from Upper Moreland High School) often accompanies his dad (now assistant fire chief) to these classes, talking to first responders from his own perspective.
“When I first started, it was extremely overwhelming, but now it comes more natural,” Daniel says of talking to the groups. Together, he and Brian have trained about 5,000 firefighters, police officers, and EMTs in how to handle an emergency with someone on the spectrum.
“After one of our first classes, a police officer actually used what he learned the very next day,” Daniel says.
In August, his work earned him a spot among 14 honorees at the National Liberty Museum’s (NLM) annual TD Bank Young Heroes Awards. The award recognizes people ages 18 and under “who identified an area where liberty was lacking, and took action to make positive change in their local schools or communities.”
This year’s honorees were selected from 67 national and international nominations. “Each year we look for young people who have championed liberty through civic engagement, conflict resolution, diversity promotion, and school or community leadership,” says NLM executive director Gwen Borowsky. They’ll have their stories featured in a special exhibit on view for one year at the museum.
To learn more about the Fochts’ program, check out the video Autism and Emergency Responders: Seeing Beyond the Smoke, where Brian notes that one in 68 children in Pennsylvania is on the spectrum—so this is info everyone needs.
The fire chief and his son deliver the class in settings like firehouses and police stations, relying on professional word of mouth to spread awareness of the program, and taking it wherever it’s requested.
They can tailor the interactive class to different kinds of responders, Daniel says, focusing on medical, fire, or police work. And people appreciate it. “I’ve gotten a compliment in which the whole class stood up and applauded and thanked me for sharing my experience with all this,” he adds.
So what should first responders be aware of if they’re helping someone on the spectrum?
Police officers, for example, should know that some people on the spectrum might focus their attention on some aspect of police gear, like a firearm or another shiny object. “Don’t take that as aggressive. That’s just their fixation on certain things,” Daniel explains.
Medics and police officers alike should remember that a person on the spectrum might repeat words or make repetitive gestures, like flapping their hands. EMTs and officers shouldn’t be intimidated or threatened by this: these are simply ways that people on the spectrum calm themselves in stressful or unusual situations.
Firefighters should realize that the way people on the spectrum respond to fire might pose special risks. Overwhelmed by frightening stimuli like a smoke alarm, fire and smoke, or even the approaching sirens, people on the spectrum might hide in an unexpected place instead of fleeing the building.
And once everyone is out of the building, any officers on the scene should take special care that a person on the spectrum doesn’t try to run back in. Daniel explains that these folks’ attachment to certain items, like a favorite gadget, might override the instinct to stay out of the building.
In some cases, if there isn’t someone available to keep the person safe while a fire is raging, the Fochts recommend placing him or her in the back of a police cruiser, not because the person is under arrest, but because in that moment, the priority is keeping him or her from re-entering a dangerous area.
Daniel adds that firefighters in his area already know when they’re heading to a call whether someone on the spectrum lives in the home. Willow Grove and Upper Moreland, for example, have what is often known as a “premise alert” program in place, in which families with special needs members can register at the local firehouse or police station.
That means “they know before they go to the call if they need to turn off sirens and lights a block away, so they don’t scare anyone,” he explains.
In the training video, Brian also emphasizes that these alert systems can help a wide range of people, including those with psychiatric issues or medication allergies. And families who want to interface with first responders before an emergency happens should feel welcome to attend open houses at their local firehouse—and if that scenario is too overwhelming for a person on the spectrum, request a one-on-one session.
The Fochts are happy for each opportunity to spread this information about how best to help people on the spectrum in crisis situations. “Knowing how to react and work with them may save a life,” Brian says.