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Unique considerations for responding to emergencies involving individuals with special needs

Ambulance Worker with Patient

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Being a first responder is a demanding and noble profession that requires individuals to be prepared for any emergency situation that may arise. Emergencies can be overwhelming and stressful for all individuals involved. However, responding to emergencies involving individuals with special needs and elderly citizens with Alzheimer’s/dementia requires a unique set of skills and training [1,2]. In order to address these patient populations’ specific needs and ensure their safety, first responders must be equipped with the knowledge and understanding of how to effectively handle these situations by having specialized training on sensory overload and effective communication.

Specialized training

First responders’ training should cover interacting with individuals with various special needs, including autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and conditions affecting the elderly, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. By understanding the characteristics, behaviors, triggers and communication strategies specific to these individuals, first responders can adapt their approach and effectively assist those with special needs during emergencies.

Effective communication

Effective communication is vital when interacting with individuals with special needs and the elderly in emergency situations [4]. First responders should be trained in communication techniques that accommodate different abilities. This can include using clear, concise language, visual aids, gestures and patiently allowing extra time for responses. Creating a calm and supportive environment through communication can help reduce anxiety and facilitate understanding.

Individuals with special needs, particularly those with ASD, may be more prone to sensory overload during emergencies [5]. Sirens, flashing lights and crowded environments can exacerbate their anxiety or even trigger panic. First responders should be aware of these sensitivities and attempt to minimize sensory stimuli if possible. Simple adjustments, such as dimming lights or turning off sirens, can have a significant impact on ensuring the individuals’ wellbeing and cooperation.

Understanding the needs of the elderly

Understanding the needs of the elderly, especially those with Alzheimer’s or dementia, is crucial for first responders [3]. Public safety officials should learn about common behaviors, memory loss patterns and potential confusion that can arise in emergency situations. Being familiar with relevant techniques, such as reminiscence therapy or using familiar objects, can greatly assist in gaining the trust and cooperation of elderly individuals and maximizing safety.

Proper preplanning is essential for emergencies involving individuals with special needs [6]. This includes proactively engaging with families, caregivers, and support networks to gather relevant information, such as emergency contact details, medical history and personalized communication strategies. Being informed about individuals’ routines, medications and any specific care needs can significantly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of first responder actions [7].

Individuals with special needs are more vulnerable during emergencies, and their lives depend on the timely and appropriate action taken by first responders [8]. A lack of training can result in miscommunication, misunderstandings and unnecessary trauma, potentially jeopardizing these individuals’ wellbeing and lives [9]. Proper training equips first responders with the knowledge and tools needed to provide effective care and support to these individuals.

The time for change is now. Individuals with special needs deserve equal access to safety, care and respect during emergencies. First responders must rise to the occasion, providing the necessary training to overcome ignorance, foster empathy and optimize their ability to assist unique patient populations. Let us unite in demanding comprehensive and ongoing training programs for first responders, ensuring that no one is left behind in times of crisis. Together, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate emergency response system that truly serves all members of society.

Additional resources: Assisting patients with special needs
Panelists share their expertise in working with exceptional patients and discussed strategies and procedures that aid in creating a successful interaction for all involved
Jennifer Dantzler, director of the Including Kids Autism Center, joins the podcast to share how EMS can better care for and communicate with patients with autism
Here’s a look at what responders need to know about the disorder, and how to modify their response to situations that involve an autistic individual
Use these 10 steps to best serve special needs patients
Ben’s Blue Bags are named after Ben Kodicek, 6, who served as the inspiration for project


  1. Carleton RN, Carleton AW, Weiss J. (2017). First responders and autism: Expanding awareness and enhancing training. Journal of Mental Health Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 10(2), 119-137.
  2. Davis E, Tschirhart M. (2015). Improving emergency response for people with disabilities. Public Administration Review, 75(6), 879-889.
  3. Kilete-Ngobeli M, Caputa C, Arthur M. (2019). Enhancing emergency preparedness for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Emergency Management, 17(1), 61-69.
  4. Rubin JD, Sulewski SJ. (2020). Disabilities and emergency management: Review and reflection. Natural Hazards Review, 21(1), 04019028.
  5. Saugstad RH. (2019). Autism spectrum disorder: Advancements in diagnosis and treatment. American Journal of Nursing, 119(1), 44-49.
  6. Güney S. (2018). Adaptation strategies for vulnerable individuals to disasters in Turkey. Disaster Prevention and Management, 27(2), 157-170.
  7. Leary JL, Barclay ME. (2013). Building disaster resilience in communities with pervasive vulnerabilities. Natural Hazards Review, 14(4), 240-248.
  8. Schmidlin E. (2016). Social work in the time of disasters: Supporting an untapped resource. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 59(1-2), 75-89.
  9. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. (2020). Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2019. Retrieved from
Fabian Oden is a critical care paramedic and MD candidate/MD5 medical student, Saint James School of Medicine.