To the untrained eye, the peculiarities in a household with an autistic individual can be easily misunderstood. As first responders and guardians of the community, it's our responsibility to discern and understand these nuances.
When Home Safety Mimics Neglect
Imagine walking into a house responding to a distress call. You see a room, eerily bare, save for a single couch. Another room, possibly padded with no furniture at all. It's easy to jump to conclusions – abuse, neglect, or some form of maltreatment. But dig a little deeper. Such measures can often be put in place by parents and caretakers to create a safe space for an autistic individual who might be self-injurious or at risk of harm.
This isn’t a green light to overlook potential signs of abuse. But it's a nudge, a reminder to delve deeper and understand the context before making judgments.
When Words Aren't Quite Literal
Margi Hedelund, a seasoned first response trainer, shares a deeply personal story that highlights the discrepancies between what's said and what's meant in autistic households.
A seemingly alarming 911 call was made by Margi's son, Martin. The young voice confessed, "I shot someone in the head." The recipient of this supposed violent act was Dalton, Martin’s brother. The twist? They were playing with Nerf guns. Martin had been taught the importance of dialing 911 when something went wrong. When he 'shot' his brother during play, in his mind, he believed he had done something wrong, leading to the emergency call.
The situation escalated quickly, with multiple agencies responding immediately to the supposed crime. But a key piece of information was missing - Martin had autism. If this had been flagged in the system, perhaps the response would've been tailored differently.
Imagine asking someone their name and getting your question thrown back at you. This is not defiance, nor is it mockery. It's a communication characteristic known as echolalia, common among individuals with autism. They might repeat verbatim what they hear, often without understanding or meaning.
This is especially crucial in intense situations, like a crime scene. An autistic individual could inadvertently incriminate themselves or provide misleading information due to this repetitive behavior.
Even in legal procedures, the nuance is crucial. For instance, when posed with the question, "Do you waive your Miranda rights?" an autistic individual might literally wave, highlighting the depth of literal processing.
Situations are not always what they seem, especially in households with autistic individuals. Understanding the context, being empathetic, and knowing the signs can make interactions smoother, safer, and more productive for all involved. Our duty extends beyond just reacting to situations; it involves understanding them, a crucial aspect when serving a diverse community.