Firefighter teaches how to help autistic people in emergencies after learning from his son

Blog Post created by laurenbackstrom Employee on Mar 1, 2012

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

As an experienced firefighter and a devoted father to an autistic son, Bill Cannata is combining the two worlds he knows so well to help protect others. MSNBC and the Today Show told his story and we thought it was important enough to also share with NFPA Today readers. 

Being in a fire can be confusing and overwhelming -- especially for someone with autism, says Cannata, a fire captain in Westwood, Mass. And autistic people may react in a way that seem combative to emergency first responders. His mission is to teach first responders around the country how to identify someone with autism and how best to help them in an emergency, when every second counts.

Cannata knows about autism first-hand: His 21-year-old son, Ted, who has the disorder, is unable to speak and is highly sensitive to sight, sound and touch.

“People with autism follow a routine and if that routine is broken, this is where the confusion begins with a lot of them and they don't know what to do,” Cannata says. “People with autism have left a burning building, but because of the confusion, went back in because that's their safety [place], or some people will run away just to get away from all of the noise and the confusion.”

The fire/rescue autism program has educated more than 15,000 first responders, as autism spectrum disorders affect a growing number of families each year.

An estimated 1.5 million Americans may have autism, a developmental disorder marked by impaired communication and social skills. An estimated one in 110 children have an autism-spectrum disorder, making the first-responder education more crucial than ever.

We send our thanks to Bill Cannata for helping to bring attention to this cause. Check out NFPA's safety tips to help people with autism in a fire as well.