When to Call 911?


As a parent, one of your most important jobs is keeping your loved ones – and yourself – safe and healthy. Sometimes this requires calling for emergency help. Dialing 911 from any phone is the quickest way to reach help from safety officers. Sometimes people are unsure if they need to call 911. If safety is at all an issue – for anyone – at any time –  CALL 911!

Safety officers are police officers, fire fighters, emergency medical technicians, etc. They have special training to:

  • quickly assess a situation
  • take control
  • safely transport affected individuals to a facility where they can get treatment.

Some safety officers even have received special training to work with individuals on the autism spectrum and those with other developmental disabilities. Their expertise can help you and your loved ones stay calm and manage any emergency situation as effectively as possible.

There are four common reasons parents of children on the autism spectrum may need to call 911:

  • An accident (for example, a car collision or fall) that causes physical injury;
  • A missing child;
  • A health condition, such as a seizure or allergic reaction; and
  • An emotional outburst resulting in aggressive behavior.

While there are precautions all families can take, despite all the best planning, an accident, missing child, or acute health problem can happen to anybody at any time. Indeed, individuals on the autism spectrum may be more prone to accidents (if gross motor skills are impaired, for example), wandering (called “elopement”), or certain medical issues (for example, some individuals on the autism spectrum also have seizures, which may not even present until adolescence). Articles within the Public Safety and Healthcare and Treatment sections of the CAR Autism Roadmap™ discuss these concerns in more depth.

You can also plan to control emotional outbursts and aggressive behavior, but as a parent of an individual on the autism spectrum, you likely already know that sometimes situations quickly escalate, even with well-designed behavior plans, communication systems, structured settings, and other supports. When individuals on the spectrum have aggressive or violent outbursts, they must be protected from hurting themselves and others. Those who love them, who may try to contain their behavior, are especially vulnerable to getting injured.

Safety must be the top priority. Behaviors can escalate to a level considered “out of control” very quickly. It is most important to know that calling 911 must be done to protect individuals from themselves and to protect those near them who may be harmed. This may feel like a drastic action, however, it is absolutely necessary to ensure safety. You may worry the autistic individual will be traumatized by the experience, however NOT calling 911 can be far more traumatizing and have much worse consequences. Someone can truly get hurt if 911 is not called. Always err on the side of safety!

There are actions that a family can take to assist the safety officers in advance of an emergency situation. These include:

  • During calm times, teach the individual on the autism spectrum that safety officers are there to help. A crisis is not a teaching moment, and  an individual may not want help from the public safety officer, who is likely someone unknown and unfamiliar. An incident can be less disturbing if the individual has already learned that safety officers are there to help.
  • Have the autistic individual carry a card indicating their Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis and which includes a list of medications. Have extra copies available to give to safety responders. This will allow them to investigate any drug side effects or interactions that may be causing or contributing to the problem.
  • Register with the local police precinct. Completing a disability history/emergency form and filing it with the local precinct will give advance notice to safety officers of actions or behaviors that may calm or trigger difficult behavior. Complete the forms ahead of time, so if an incident occurs, critical information about your loved one is already in police hands. Also keep an extra copy on hand to give to the emergency workers who respond to your call.

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Last Updated: June 18, 2020

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.

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