A New Jersey firefighter has started teaching classes to firefighters, and other first responders about what to do if they respond to a situation where a person, more specifically a child, is on the autism spectrum.

Donald Colarusso, president of All Hands Fire Equipment and Training in Neptune City, said it's important to make first responders aware of certain encounters where a person with autism may not welcome what the firefighters would consider a routine engagement.

Colarusso had taken a class on how to deal with these delicate situations at the Monmouth County Sheriffs Department years ago. Having someone in his family with autism, Colarusso really took this class to heart.

But the class is not offered anymore, so Colarusso decided to create his own class called "Autism Awareness for First Responders."

He said firefighters need to be aware of the different challenges they may face when confronted with someone with autism.

In the class, they talk about some autistic traits and different characteristics that firefighters may look for and if they can read that, they may need to go in a different direction in their engagement with the person, he said.

Firefighter Don Colarusso teaches Autism Awareness for First Responders class (Photo Credit: Don Colarusso)
Firefighter Don Colarusso teaches Autism Awareness for First Responders class (Photo Credit: Don Colarusso)
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"The big thing that we talk about in the class is how do you, number one, identify somebody, if it can be identified, and number two, how do you get them to where you need them to be," Colarusso said.

If firefighters are responding to a home for a gas leak and there is a child inside with autism, the firefighters are responding with lights and sirens blaring. They're entering their space, moving objects around the house to investigate. That can be quite disruptive to someone with autism, Colarusso said.

Sometimes, they need things to be in their exact spot and if things are moved, it can have terrible effects on them. Having a little bit of care and understanding of the different challenges can make those folks safer, and make the firefighters accomplish what they are there to accomplish, he added.

Colarusso said it's also very important to have the parent or caregiver tell the responding firefighter that there is a child inside with autism and that may be moving things around inside will cause a problem.

By knowing this, firefighters can be more sensitive to the situation and possibly take other avenues.

"If things have to be moved, maybe we can take a photograph of it so we can get it back to where it was before us moving it. We can work through the caregiver to say, listen, is it okay if we move that chair or is it okay if we move that toy box," Colarusso said.

It's always best to seek permission, when possible, he said.

Colarusso has taught one 90-minute class for the Colts Neck First Aid. He said the class was very engaging and asked a lot of questions.

He plans on teaching more classes to other first responder-type agencies in other New Jersey.

"The goals are to know how to get that person with autism comfortable, to understand them, and get them from point A to point B," he said.

This class was also submitted to the Department of Health for emergency medical technicians to earn continuing education units. So those who need to earn their CEUs to renew their EMT, this class has been recognized by the state department of health to do so.

Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at jennifer.ursillo@townsquaremedia.com

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