As part of a new initiative to create an ideal community for families and individuals with special needs, the City of Winchester hosted a training session for local emergency personnel with a focus on autistic individuals. With over 20 local first-respondents and city staff in attendance, Belinda Hughes, President and Founder of Behavior Associates of Indiana, offered a profound first-hand presentation of living with autism.
Hughes said the most important take-away from her training session was to show first-responders “what to do” in a “what if” situation. Through statistics, charts, cues, stems and her own perspective as a mother of a 20 year old autistic child, Hughes elaborated on the importance of approach when emergency personnel encounter a person with autism.
“Giving more stimulus to an over-stimulated kid is not good,” Hughes said. “This training is two-fold. First, to help you become familiar with primary characteristics of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and to identify three levels of common appropriate and inappropriate responses.”
Hughes pointed out every individual is different and have different levels of functionality with communication, sound, cognitive skills, or stereotypical behavior of a certain age. The neurological disorder can now be diagnosed at the age of two or three and research implies there are underlying genetic components. She said there are multiple causes, but no cure.
As of the end of 2019, 17,000 students in Indiana Public Schools were diagnosed with autism. The current ratio, one out of 62, included four out of five as male.
Hughes mentioned several prevalent characteristics an autistic person might demonstrate, such as limited vocabulary, repetitive words or phrases, monotone speech, long pauses before speaking, inappropriate response for a situation or echolalia.
“Echolalia is when a kid will repeat the last statement you said, or the last words you spoke, over and over,” Hughes said. “They’re not being disrespectful, it’s just what they might do when in a stressful situation.”
Her recommendation for responders was to “listen to the parents” if called to a home scenario where the person with ASD has been out of control. She emphasized that the parents know their behaviors the best and what the person needs in that moment.
Other typical behaviors exhibited by persons with ASD could be temper tantrums, a need for personal space, lack of empathy, loping, sensory overload with sound, lights or touch and attracted to shiny objects. So, an officer’s badge could be common ground to start positive communication, according to Hughes.
Hughes pointed out those with ASD are seven times more likely to have contact with law enforcement. The behavior professional explained because many of her clients have a high pain threshold they have little to no concept of danger.
“They also are more likely to be victims and witnesses of crimes from offenders,” she said. “Few have social filters, which makes it harder for them to make friends. That desire to have friends may lead to criminals befriending them as an unwitting accomplice.”
As a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst with a Master of Arts degree in Special Education from Ball State University, Hughes served a a faculty member of the Special Education Department at BSU teaching graduate courses in autism and applied behavior analysis. Hughes also founded Interlock, an East Central Indiana Autism Support Group where she served 10 years as a member of the board of directors. Her resume` included a plethora of programs she has helped establish in her community for the betterment of autistic families.
To enhance the training session, Kirsten Oswalt-Wallace, the Mayor’s secretary, graciously brought her autistic son, Jack, to attend the afternoon session. As Hughes explained characteristics of the ASD, attendees were able to witness first-hand some of the information they had learned.
“It was beneficial for them to have Jack here and for him because he loves police officers,” Oswalt-Wallace said.
The city’s executive secretary was actually the one to get the training initiative off the ground. She had talked with Curriculum Director of Randolph Central School Corporation, Lisa Chalfant, about providing more services for autistic families. Chalfant put her in touch with Hughes.
“We’re thinking of areas of quality of life or business development where people of special needs are more inclusive,” Oswalt-Wallace said. “I’m hoping to have some flash cards of each of the first-responders for each of the students. So, they get to see them in uniform and out of uniform, which helps the student get to know them better.”
A big hit with attendees was a plastic business card from Hughes with a condensed version of some of the best de-escalation procedures. A quick and easy reference chart that was designed to help in communicating, restraining and peacefully resolve an other-wise tragic situation.
The success of the training was evident in comments from the local police chief, fire department personnel and park department participants. First, the informative session applied towards the 24 hours of continued education police need to keep their arrest hours. Secondly, it offered new concepts for change in department procedures.
“This autistic awareness is part of our mandatory training,” said Winchester Police Chief Jon Reed, after the session. “But Ms. Hughes put it in a personal format and had her educational touch. All the feedback has been positive and I think everyone thought it was a good thing to have Jack there, along with the personal input from Ms. Hugh about her own son.”
Reed added that learning not to be judgmental too quick, finding out why a certain behavior is being exhibited or the root cause of a person’s behavior could be very beneficial to him and his employees.
“The big take-away is that it will help us identify someone who is on the autistic spectrum, or on the influence of drugs and help us address that person a lot better.”
One representative of the fire department, Paramedic Anthony Harless, was impressed with the magnitude of educational material given by Hughes.
“For the state of Indiana, we and anybody in first-responding has to take an hour of autistic training, but this was way more information,” Harless said, “and the little de-escalation card we received will be great to better serve our autistic population.”
Street, Parks, and Sanitation Superintendent, Shean Bosworth, attended the meeting with several of his staff, including Goodrich Pool Manager, Trenton Sanders. Bosworth said he and his employees have assisted in tricky situations in the past with people expressing erratic behaviors.
“I’m around kids all the time and we’ve been called up when kids are missing,” Bosworth said. “One time last year, in the middle of the night, there was an incident with a missing girl and we were some of the first ones to find her. And she was autistic. This had me thinking about that time and how we would respond differently now.”
Bosworth said all of his staff that attended were glad they did and could see where the new information could help within their work environment and families. He, also, said he could see where breaking down communication cues into small parts would be helpful.
Hughes’ passion for what she does and how she does it was evident in how many times she expressed her desire “to be there for her kids” and teach those involved in their lives and help them all to develop tools to cope in a more compatible way. Her business card has a quote from Temple Grandin that states, “There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what he cannot do.”
Hughes, located in Muncie, can be contacted at her email, firstname.lastname@example.org or (765) 282-8222.