Firefighter with Asperger's teaches peers about autism awareness

When Courtney Mills hops into the fire truck, she brings a different perspective along for the ride.

The 21-year-old volunteer firefighter from Nova Scotia has Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum that may be characterized by a difficulty with social interactions.

It's a fact Mills gladly shares, with the hope of educating others.

"As first responders, some of them don't know how to handle or deal with us and they kind of come off rude," said Mills.

Her personal experience, along with her father's career as a paramedic and volunteer firefighter, inspired her to join the Cobequid district fire brigade in Truro when she was 14. As a junior member, she learned the ropes.

Search high, low

Now, Mills travels across the province, delivering presentations about autism awareness on the job, including during emergency rescue situations.

"My main tip is to search high and low. In our fire training, we're basically taught how to look low, but people with autism go where they're comfortable with, and sometimes they go up in really high spots which is abnormal for us to search," she said.

"You have to approach the situation differently. They are flight risks and known to wander."

People with autism may have communication problems, struggle socially and tend to repeat certain behaviours while having a restricted range of interests. However, signs of autism and severity of symptoms differ from person to person.

Autism kit

Mills adds that many people with autism don't like human contact or they're non-verbal. She has developed a kit that includes pictures to help first responders communicate with people when they're in distress.

"You can point to which part on the body and it has the pain scale for them," she said.

Another tip from Mills is to always search water sources when an autistic person goes missing.

Drowning is the number 1 cause of accidental death among people with autism, according to Autism Nova Scotia.

In her presentations, Mills cites the tragic case of James Delorey, a seven-year-old boy with autism who died in 2009. Delorey, who was non-verbal, died from hypothermia after he had been missing for two days in South Bar, N.S. He was found huddled in an area of thick brush next to a brook near Kilkenny Lake.

Lessons learned

Capt. Robert Carter of the Pugwash fire department said he walked away from a recent presentation by Mills feeling better prepared.

"To a first responder, I think it's very important to know how to deal with an autistic kid and that way they don't seem to be scared by us," he said.

"We can understand how to approach them, talk to them and ... try to keep them calm in an emergency situation."

So far this year, Mills has educated more than 20 groups across Nova Scotia.

Although Autism Nova Scotia also educates first responders, executive director Cynthia Carroll says Mills elevates the message to another level.

"To have Courtney do this as a first voice, but also use her experience as a volunteer firefighter and talk about the importance of this is unbelievable," she said.

"It's really invaluable."