Fla. firefighter starts autism training program

The training is geared toward increasing safety for firefighters and those with autism encountered during calls


Treasure Coast Newspapers

ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. — With the number of people identified as having autism growing, a Fire District firefighter is training others in his agency in recognizing and interacting better with those with the developmental disability.

Firefighter/paramedic Pete Villasuso, 39, whose son was diagnosed in 2012, said that he, another firefighter who has a child with autism and two other fire district members attended training in Fort Lauderdale in February and are educating co-workers. They’ll be the first countywide fire rescue agency on the Treasure Coast with such specialized training.

The training, Villasuso said, is geared toward increasing safety for firefighters and those with autism encountered during calls. The hourlong initiative includes videos of children with autism, showing their traits and reactions.

One video is of a staged vehicle accident in a training facility with emergency vehicles. The kids in the video — children of a firefighter — have autism and weren’t informed the event was a training exercise. The mother in the front seat has a bloody nose.

“They weren’t hurt in any way. It’s a mock accident,” Villasuso said. “But it’s just to see how the kids react with lights and sirens, with overstimulation, with the fact that mom’s being put on a backboard and on a stretcher. It was really wonderful.”

The training comes as April is recognized as Autism Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the number of youngsters identified with autism spectrum disorder, or autism, has increased from about 1 in 150 in 2000 and 2002, to 1 in 68 in 2010, the most recent statistics listed. The 2010 figure is based on 8-year-old children in 11 communities, as opposed to nationwide.

“The chances of us coming across a child that’s autistic are greater and greater and greater,” Villasuso said.

Slightly more than 1,000 people in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties who have autism have registered with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at Florida Atlantic University to be eligible for services and support, according to Cathy Allore, clinician at the FAU CARD satellite office in St. Lucie West. More than half of those are in St. Lucie County, she said.

Statewide in 2011-2012, about 22,000 people ages 3 to 21 with disabilities who received special education services have autism — a nearly fivefold increase since 2000, according to statistics cited by Easter Seals.

Those with autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability, often experience difficulties with emotional, communication and social skills, according to the CDC. The disorder sometimes can be detected in children as early as 18 months old. While there’s no cure, early intervention can help a child’s development, the CDC states.

Martin and Indian River counties’ fire rescue representatives said they haven’t received formal autism specific training for first responders, but they would be interested in getting it.

Villasuso said he contacted Dennis Debbaudt, a Port St. Lucie man who has written and presented extensively about autism and first responders. He connected with Debbaudt through the Autism Speaks organization.

“He just opened up his heart and said whatever you guys need, you take,” Villasuso said.

Debbaudt, 64, whose son, Brad, has autism, said some visible or audible cues that a person may have autism include covering their eyes and ears, rocking back and forth and flicking their hands and wrists rapidly in front of their eyes.

Some might be nonverbal, or capable of verbal communication understood only by someone who knows them well, such as a parent, educator or specialist.

“If you didn’t know them it would be as if they were speaking a foreign language,” Debbaudt said. “The first responder then becomes handicapped by their inability to decipher what this person’s communicating.”

Debbaudt said some law enforcement and other first responders have thought people were high on street drugs, drunk or experiencing a psychotic event or exhibited other behavior, so they took actions based on what they believed.

“These are the predictable field contacts that we can familiarize a first responder about,” Debbaudt said. “Knowing about these risks will greatly enhance your ability to manage it.”

Villasuso mentioned incidents elsewhere in which a person with autism who was pulled from a burning house walked back in the house and died.

“They know the home is their safe place and if somebody doesn’t stay with them they’re going to go right back even though it’s on fire,” Villasuso said.

Shane Kozac, a firefighter/paramedic with the fire district, got the training late last month. He said he thought it would benefit fire district personnel and community members.

Kozac spoke of a call years ago in which a parent was unresponsive because of a medical condition. When rescue crews arrived, a child at the scene acted erratic and Kozac said officials had difficulty understanding whether the child also was experiencing a medical condition.

“We couldn’t really understand if it was a combination of the two having some type of medical problem,” Kozac said. “Probably now, with the training, it might make you think a little differently.”

Kozac said after other family members arrived, rescue crews learned the child had autism.

“They weren’t having a medical condition,” Kozac said. “To us it seemed like one but in all reality it wasn’t.”

Villasuso said firefighters are used to being fast in handling incidents.

“If we get that notion we have an autistic patient we need to take a step back and let the training kick in and give it more time,” he said. “It’s not like a regular call.”

Autism Awareness
Firefighters at the St. Lucie County Fire District are expected to don special blue shirts this month to show support for autism awareness.

Stickers for people to put on their homes to alert first responders an autistic person is there are available at the fire district’s headquarters, 5160 N.W. Milner Drive in Port St. Lucie. The phone number is 772-621-3400.

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