Hyun Ho Cho is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree.

Search and Rescue (SAR) situations are ones that no one wants to experience, yet these services are welcomed by those who find themselves in these unfortunate situations. But for some, SAR can add an additional level of distress that pushes them further from safety.

Recently I had the opportunity of interviewing Shanyn Silinski, the director of Search and Rescue Autism in Canada. SAR Autism is a program that plans and prepares resources for responders when it comes to people with autism in the context of search and rescue operations. According to Silinski, people with autism can present particular behaviours that may make search and rescue efforts uniquely challenging. Most agencies and organizations both in the private and public sectors may not consider neurodiverse people when it comes to planning infrastructure and services.

Having guided caving and backpacking trips in the mountain parks, I have experienced this capability gap firsthand. Neurodiverse people and how we respond to them is a perspective that I myself had never considered in regards to contingency planning and public safety. In order to make Parks more accessible and inclusive, it is important to have the necessary services and background resources to make the experience of these places safe for all. This means training public safety teams and responders on how to respond to members of our community who are neurodiverse and providing access to preventative education for people who are neurodiverse.

Normal Doesn't Exist

Going into the interview, I will admit my previous background knowledge on autism was somewhat limited. Unfortunately, this is quite common. The large majority of Canadians have a general idea of what autism is, without any actual knowledge of how autistic people perceive the world or how this might affect the way they respond to their environments. As a result, services that cater to neurodiverse people are less available across the board. Oftentimes in the context of parks, neurodiverse individuals and other minority groups are overlooked when it comes to policies and services. This includes public safety. However innocent this oversight may be, this affects many Canadians. When we look at the numbers this excludes quite a large segment of our population. According to Public Health Canada, an estimated 1 in 66 Canadian children have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and that’s just the kids. That means approximately 540,000 Canadian citizens may not have access to the services they need in our parks.

Neurodiversity: How Does it Work? Why Does it Matter?

Before my conversation with Shanyn, I didn’t really understand what the word “neurodiversity” meant. In preparation for the interview, like any good millennial, I googled it. Let’s start with a definition. Merriam Webster’s dictionary has 3 definitions of the term neurodiversity. They are as follows:

  1. Individual differences in brain functioning regarded as normal variations within the human population.
  2. The concept that differences in brain functioning within the human population are normal and that brain functioning that is not neurotypical should not be stigmatized.
  3. The inclusion in a group, organization, etc. of people with different types of brain functioning.

Because neurodiversity refers to the variations in brain functioning across the human population as a whole, it refers to a broad range of behaviours and responses that apply to us all at varying degrees – not just people with autism, or other behavioural conditions. Neurodiversity, then, is just as much a part of someone’s identity as their skin colour, gender identity, sexual orientation, and physical ability.

If we are to make Canadian parks a more inclusive environment for all, it is imperative then that we make an effort to include individuals who are more neurodiverse, just as we would someone with a physical disability or a minority group. Individuals who are more neurodiverse should have services and amenities available to them on par with the rest of park users; parks leaders should not expect individuals who are more neurodiverse to adapt to our current park’s infrastructure. That may not always be possible. It means our parks or parts of them must change to accept and welcome these individuals.

What About Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder, or autism, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts brain development.  The result is that most individuals experience communication problems, difficulty with social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. They may also have a markedly restricted range of activities and interests.
Autism Canada

In our interview, Silinski spoke to how people with autism may perceive the world differently from those of us who are more neurotypical. Specifically, she spoke to how people with autism may require extremely detailed descriptions and instructions in order to complete a task or recognize a situation. For example, individuals with autism may not recognize what being lost looks like without being told specific characteristics of what being lost feels like. Consequently, they may wander even further from where they were last seen. 

Photo courtesy of C Valdez / Unsplash.com

Another example Silinski used was that of the “Hug a Tree” program for children, where individuals were instructed to hug a tree if they got lost. Where a neurotypical person might be able to read into the implied context of an instruction, an autistic person may not. Take, for example, the instruction “hug a tree if you’re lost.” Even without any further context, most people would be able to gather that the reason for this is so that they don’t wander, which makes it easier for responders to locate them. An autistic person, on the other hand, might instead fixate on what constitutes a huggable tree. In most situations, the implied meaning must be explicitly stated in order for them to fully understand the “why” of the instruction.

Additionally, individuals who have autism may bolt unexpectedly from unfamiliar situations or situations with too many stimuli. Oftentimes individuals with autism prefer familiar environments, objects, and people – in short, stimuli that they are accustomed to. This can be problematic in many rescue scenarios that have stimuli like flashing lights, bright colours, loud noises and hazards.

What Can Happen?

According to Silinski, because autistic individuals may respond differently to a crisis or an emergency situation, this can have a number of implications that responders may not be well trained to respond to. Oftentimes they retreat from rescuers or a safe location during a crisis, especially if it is unfamiliar or overstimulating. An example Silinski used was a building fire in the United States where everyone was evacuated safely from the building to a safe secondary holding area. However, one of the individuals who was rescued had autism. When transferred to the safe secondary holding area, they found it overwhelming and overstimulating and ran back to a familiar space, that space being the burning building.

Photo courtesy of Obi Onyeador / Unsplash.com.

Instances like these are called secondary incidents and are easily preventable with training on how to recognize and respond to signs of autism. Oftentimes people with autism will try to return to a place that makes them feel safe or that is familiar to them, even if that place is more dangerous than where they currently are. To an average responder, this may not be common knowledge and thus they may not be able to respond accordingly. Additionally, without understanding how an individual with autism perceives and recognizes safety we cannot make them feel safe in a crisis or emergency.

Inclusion As a Solution

That’s where SAR Autism comes in. SAR Autism aims to educate people with autism and give them back ownership of their own outdoor experiences so that they can recognize and prevent emergency situations. Additionally, they run courses for agencies, responders and volunteers on how to respond when an autistic person is lost or in an emergency situation. For example, having a “first aid kit” for neurodiverse individuals with items that they can stimulate themselves with to feel more at ease once they are found, or search methods that are less overwhelming for neurodiverse individuals and people with autism. By educating people with autism on how to be more proactive about their safety outside and teaching them how to recognize certain situations, like how to recognize when they are lost or what a rescue looks like, SAR Autism can help increase the chances of a successful recovery on both ends of the rescue.

By making spaces inclusive and safe for autistic people we can actually make parks a safer and more inclusive space for all. Silinski posits that by making spaces feel safe and inclusive for people with autism, we also make those spaces inclusive for a diverse range of individuals. Quiet safe spaces can help people healing from trauma, newcomers who want a more authentic experience of their surroundings, and Indigenous peoples who want to reconnect with their traditional lands. In sum, by making these spaces more accessible it does a service to all, with minimal impact to the existing visitor experience.  

What other safety resources do you know of that help achieve inclusivity in parks? Let us know in the comments below!

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