2024 Autism awareness month is here and we’re shedding light on all the amazing autism warriors with some important tips for EMS responders. Being involved in a medical emergency is stressful for anyone. But patients with autism experience stress levels that are considerably higher due to the nature of EMS response. While flashing lights and loud sirens may be comforting to some, they can send someone with autism into sensory overdrive.

In honor of 2024 Autism awareness month, here are some tips and tricks to help EMS professionals make their interactions a little less stressful for those with autism.

What Is Autism?

In order to understand how you can better serve those in your community, it’s important to understand the meaning behind some of the most common disorders in your community. Autism is a spectrum disorder that now affects 1 in 59 children. According to statistics for the 2021 Autism awareness month, it refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism will exhibit a different set of strengths and challenges. Some with Autism spectrum disorder, commonly referred to as ASD, will require significant supports on a daily basis while others may live entirely independently. Those with autism can experience several sensory sensitivities and medical issues. These can include:

  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Seizures
  • Sleep disorders
  • Mental health challenges
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Attention issues

Because autism affects so many people, the 2021 Autism awareness month is celebrated worldwide to shed light on ways we can understand and assist those with the disorder.

2024 Autism Awareness Month Sheds Light on How EMS Responders Can Be Prepared

One of the main reasons people work so hard to build awareness is to help educate the community, and world at large, about different ways we can help others. Since EMS responders play a huge role in the safety of all of us, we’re going to give you the best tips and tricks to help you effectively respond to patients with autism. Share these with your entire team and to teams around you to increase the reach of the 2024 Autism awareness month work.

Things to Consider

Caring for an autistic individual can bring several challenges for an EMS responder. This can become increasingly complicated when time plays a role. Take these three main areas of difficulty into consideration. The more prepared you are, the more effectively you will be able to serve your patients with autism. Adjusting the plan of care will deliver better outcomes all around.

1.          Before the Emergency

Find ways to identify individuals in your community with an autism diagnosis. There are all sorts of outreach education programs that coincide with the 2021 Autism awareness month efforts. You can help families register with their community 9-1-1 service. There are sticks and other identifiers that can be placed on windows and doors of cars and home. The Autism Society offers personal identification records in the case of emergencies. These can direct EMS providers on specific approaches that are effective in administering care.

Use 2024 Autism awareness month to host or participate in a special event for those in the community with autism. This could even open the door to help you interact with autistic individuals in a non-emergency setting. You can use is as a chance to educate autistic individuals about some of the equipment used in an emergency. It’s also a chance for parents or caregivers to educate EMS professionals on the specific needs of the individual they care for.

2.          When Responding to an Emergency

When responding to an emergency with an autistic patient involved, there are specific adjustments you can make to deliver care more effectively. Consider the following:

  • Limit the use of lights and sirens when possible
  • Allocate one individual to focus on the patient. Limiting the number of caregivers can help the autistic individual understand exactly what’s happening and reduce their level of anxiety.
  • Be direct in your request so there is no room for confusion.
  • Move slowly.
  • Explain everything before you do it to reduce the negative impact of new experiences.
  • Inform the receiving facility of the patient’s diagnosis and any specific approaches you have found to be successful.
  • Minimize distractions.
  • Allow the patient to perform self-stimulating, calming exercises when possible.
  • Assess for pain more carefully. Autistic patients may not respond to commonly used instruments.
  • Use the patient’s caregiver whenever possible.
  • Emphasize comfort and reassurance repeatedly.
  • Expect the unexpected. Check carefully for injuries that they might not be relaying to you.
  • Don’t presume a nonverbal child or adult who might not seem to be listening, can’t hear of understand what you say.

3.          Autism and Aggressive Behavior

According to research put forward for the 2024 Autism awareness month, those on the autism spectrum are 20-30% more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior than the general population. These behaviors are often escalated when they are in distress, uncomfortable, or not feeling well. You need to think of this type of aggressive behavior differently than you would a planned and purposeful act of violence. Aggressive behavior with autistic individuals is usually due to their inability to communication and their reaction to pain or fear. It is essentially a form of communication.

When you step back and approach these calls with understanding, you will more likely be able to provide the proper help your patient needs. Utilize the caregiver to help you navigate any aggressive behavior. Perform only those procedures that are essential to the patient’s well-being. Do as much as you possibly can to alleviate your patient’s fears.

Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States. The rates continue to rise by 10-17% annually. As we make our way through the 2024 Autism awareness month, we encourage EMS personnel everywhere to educate themselves on the disorder and find effective ways to help deliver care during emergency situations. Education and awareness will help you deliver better service to your patients and better outcomes for all involved.