When a building is burning and firefighters are focused on saving lives and the difference between life and death is a matter of seconds, they can be stopped in their tracks by an autistic child.
"A lot of the time, people with autism don't understand what's going on so they don't know what's expected of them," said Capt. Bill Cannata, an autism first responder educator. "They're going to do opposite of what a first responder would think."
It's that kind of situation that inspired a new autism seminar at the FDNY training academy Wednesday that dealt with what to do when handling an autistic child at an emergency.
Cannata, from the Westwood, Mass. Fire Department, travels the country, teaching emergency responders how to deal with autistic children.
In an emergency, for example, loud noises, flashing lights and chaos can send an autistic child into sensory overload. They can resist rescue, run into a fire instead of away from it, or even attack and bite the very person trying to rescue them.
Cannata's own son, Ted, has autism.
"He can be very aggressive; Ted's a biter," said Cannata. "If you keep getting into his personal space, he's probably going to bite."
So how do you rescue a child like Ted? Cannata instructs rescuers to first approach in a quiet, non-threatening manner. Be wary of touching them, he says: some might fight back, so try not to touch near the shoulders or face.
Use simple, short instructions like "Get up" or "Wait here," says Cannata. And never use slang; if you ask, "Are you cool?" they'll take it literally. And be prepared for a forced entry, warns Cannata. Parents often have to lock every door in the house to keep an autistic child from wandering out.
For a number of the people at the seminar, this was also a personal lesson.
"We have quite a few members with autistic children," said Edward Kilduff, FDNY chief of department. "Many of them are here tonight because they want to learn and see what they can bring home to their families."
Wednesday's seminar was recorded so that autism training can happen in every firehouse and for all new recruits at the fire academy on Randall's Island.