It is increasingly common for police and firefighters to encounter autistic men and women when responding to the scene of a crime or fire, Boardman said. That's because rates of autism are have been on the rise for many years — especially in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley — and because federal, state and local government spending cuts have led to reductions in the number of affordable daytime programs for severely autistic adults. Afterschool programs for autistic children have also suffered cuts.
It is particularly important for police and fire officials to know how to spot signs of autism in individuals they may contact, Boardman explained. Severely autistic men and women may have trouble communicating or might act inappropriately in the presence of an emergency responder, and being able to determine that someone is possibly autistic can help in improving communication and understanding.
"Many times people with autism don't understand social hierarchies," Boardman said. They might not follow directions well, which could lead an officer to assume a subject is being disrespectful or even represents a threat.
An autistic person might even "reach for an officer's badge or gun," Boardman continued — not in an attempt to attack the officer, but simply because the item interests them. In some cases, an autistic person may not be able to speak or even understand the speech of others, he said.
Boardman said he helps emergency officials understand how the autistic mind works, how to look for signs of autism, and some tips on how to have more productive exchanges with autistic people.
According to Boardman, he has encountered many officials during these training sessions who recall an interaction with an autistic individual, which they believe would have gone better had they been better trained.
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