When Spokane fire Lt. John Goodman took his mask out, 3-year-old Lexi Mortlock buried her face in her dad’s shoulder and started sobbing.
But within a few minutes, Lexi had calmed down and was running around a garage at the Spokane Fire Department’s training complex, happily accepting a toy whale from Goodman.
“The first few times we came, it was her in the corner crying the whole time,” said her father, Mike Mortlock.
Lexi was one of about 10 kids with special needs who visited the station through a program offered by The Isaac Foundation, a Spokane nonprofit.
The visits are part of a larger program called Autism in the Wild designed to help firefighters and police learn about children on the autism spectrum and help children develop positive relationships with first responders.
Lexi, who has a sensory processing disorder, participated with her older brother Grayson, who is autistic. She’s been a regular at the monthly visits and has gradually become less afraid around firefighters, though she still gets scared when one of them puts on full turnout gear with a mask and oxygen tank.
Program manager Krysten Carl said the goal is to get kids used to being around first responders, showing them what uniforms look like and giving them positive experiences before they or their family have an emergency. Some people with autism get overloaded by noise or flashing lights, causing them to shut down, so showing them the lights and sirens on a police car in a safe setting can help.
Others, like Lexi, might run away from a firefighter in a mask who seems scary during an emergency without knowing there’s a nice person under all that gear.
“If there was a fire in my house, I’d be scared and worried for my kids,” Mortlock said. Through the station days, he’s seen his children become more trusting and excited to meet the firefighters and police officers.
The visit began with two firefighters and two officers lining up as Isaac Foundation Executive Director Holly Lytle explained how their uniforms are different. Officers and firefighters gave kids candy and exchanged smiles before Goodman suited up in full firefighting gear.
Lt. Dan Strobeck narrated as Goodman donned a turnout coat, oxygen tank and mask.
“Does he look a lot different than when he started? Yeah. But it’s still John and he’s still there to help,” Strobeck said. Goodman showed kids how he’d crawl on the ground to get through smoke and blew bubbles with them using air from his breathing apparatus.
Before long, the morning gave way to kids running around between firetrucks and police cars, trying on vests and getting junior police officer badges.
Though the visits are fun, they can bring out real concerns from parents. Carl, the program manager, said the 2006 death of Otto Zehm is still fresh in some parents’ minds. Zehm was a mentally ill janitor who died following a confrontation with Spokane police officers.
More recent events, like the July shooting of Charles Kinsey by North Miami, Florida, police, also resonate with parents. Kinsey was a caretaker for an autistic man who had run away from an assisted living facility. He was shot and wounded while sitting in the street with his hands up while trying to calm his patient.
“A lot of parents were really worried because that could be their kid,” Carl said.
Across the nation, people with mental illnesses or other disabilities are far more likely to be shot by police. A 2015 Washington Post investigation found that a quarter of the people shot and killed by police in the first half of the year were experiencing a mental or emotional crisis.
One family that has come to station visits in the past has a black and nonverbal autistic child, Josiah, who has run up to police officers and grabbed their handcuffs, then tried to play with their guns, Carl said.
“He’s very loving,” Carl said. But his parents feared his instincts could lead to him getting hurt by police when he’s older, especially because of his race.
“For her that was really scary,” Carl said of the boy’s mother, Maria Jennings.
Foundation staff teach kids to give police and firefighters fist bumps, rather than hugs, to maintain an appropriate distance.
The Isaac Foundation began station visits with firefighters about a year ago, and started including Spokane police officers in July. Carl said the foundation works with about 350 to 400 families a year who have a child with an autism spectrum disorder or other special needs that affect sensory perception and processing.
The larger Autism in the Wild program, which includes emergency preparedness workshops for families and education for firefighters on autism spectrum disorders, began about two years ago after conversations between Lytle and Goodman, both of whom have autistic sons.
Every person on the autism spectrum is going to react to firefighters and police differently, so Goodman said it’s important for first responders to build trust and rapport with them.
“There’s a lot of characteristics that are the same, but the kids are all different,” he said.
The program also allows families to place a temporary alert on their house so responding firefighters and paramedics can get information through dispatch about special-needs children, including whether they’re likely to run away and are able to communicate verbally.
Goodman said information like that helps first responders slow down and recognize that they might need to spend extra time speaking slowly so that kids who process speech differently are able to understand them and get comfortable. Firefighters carry donated stuffed animals on their trucks and may bring them out to soothe a special-needs child who’s upset because an adult in the family is having a medical issue.
Police Sgt. Chris Crane attended the visit for a second time Sunday. He coordinates the department’s crisis intervention training program, and said he’s working to get officers who have done advanced crisis training to rotate through station visits so each one has an opportunity to meet kids on the autism spectrum.
Crane said the department also is working to allow police to see alerts about special-needs people within a home, though he said many of the crisis-trained officers are familiar with homes they get called to regularly.
He’s found many of the kids are initially standoffish when approached by police, but officers can eventually build trust by getting down to a kid’s level. One child he worked with at the last station visit didn’t want to sit in a patrol car with Crane, but eventually warmed up to the idea.
“We just kept trying things and trying things and finally he was comfortable enough,” Crane said.
Lexi’s brother, 6-year-old Grayson, has also attended several station visits and was enthusiastic about blowing bubbles with Goodman and learning about a police motorcycle.
Asked what he thought about the police officers who were there, he smiled and said, “They’re not scary. They’re happy.”
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