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Fire Capt. Bill Cannata, originator of the Autism Law Enforcement Coalition (ALEC) training program for first responders, speaks at a training session held in Southaven. The ALEC program addresses the uniqueness of dealing with people who are in the autism spectrum.

Five years ago, Bill Cannata came to DeSoto County for the first session of his Autism Law Enforcement Coalition (ALEC) training for first responders.

Cannata is a Captain with the Westwood, Mass. Fire Department and has a son, Ted, who has autism. It was through his son that Cannata’s interest in autism began, in particular, how his fellow first responders interacted with people on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),

Cannata’s first visit to DeSoto County came through the Arc Northwest Mississippi to train law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMTs that working with autistic people is a little different from dealing with other people.

“In the first responders' community, we're fast,” Cannata said. “When we give a question, we want an answer right away. It doesn't work well with autism, because it's a delayed process.”

That was among the points and tips Cannata presented as he returned to DeSoto County and presented his training program to about 50 first responders from across the county at Getwell Church in Southaven.

However, Cannata said he had returned for another reason: to start training a trainer from the county who would continue presenting the program.

“We have identified an officer here in this region,” he said. “Our long-term goal is to get funding through a grant to expand the program in regions around the country. This is actually our first stop with this grant and hopefully we can plant the seeds here. Our goal is a statewide program here in Mississippi.”

Sgt. Kevin King with the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department was identified as the officer who is being trained to continue the program in the county.

ALEC has been training first responders since its beginnings in 2004 in the Massachusetts fire department and area Cannata was a part of. It describes what ASD is and how officers, firefighters and EMTs can tell if someone they are speaking with may be autistic.

Cannata said the program is working.

“We have trained over 43,000 first responders nationwide, so getting a lot of feedback shows it is really working and helping,” he said. “Having a better understanding after the training, they have been able to handle situations in a more appropriate manner, and a safer manner. They attribute that to the training because it helps them understand autism better and knowing the tips that we give them on how to handle a situation.”

Cannata’s presentation showed special tactics, response and rescue techniques, patient care, search and rescue, along with real life incidents were discussed. The training is free to first responders in Northwest Mississippi.

“It's to give them a better understanding of autism and giving them tips on how to work with individuals when they do have encounters,” said Cannata. “And the biggest piece of this program to take away is that recognition piece, so when they approach a person with autism, hopefully we're going to give ways to recognize how they may display behaviors that would lead them to believe that they have autism.”

Proper approach in law enforcement or life threatening moments remains valuable, Cannata said, and he added that working with families and those who work with people who support those with ASD is also vital.

“We also like to work with the autism community to teach them how to interact with our first responders," Cannata explained. “It's a project that brings both worlds together so we better understand each other. That's what we hope to accomplish here and across the country.”

Bob Bakken is Managing Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune.

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