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Local firefighter creates program to help those with special needs

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -

Autism is making more headlines than ever before. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports 1 in 68 children live on the spectrum. 

"Repetitive behavior, routine is very important, they don't typically do well with change," Jason Reich, who is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Mental Health Service Provider with CHI Memorial said.

Autism impacts a person's ability to communicate and understand what's going on around them which can make a first responders job complicated when seconds are critical. 

Bradley County Deputy Corey Loftis knows first hand. 

"He just kept telling me that he was so upset but he didn't know how to channel his anger," Loftis said. 

Loftis met Bubba, 19, while responding to a call last year. 

His mom called for help when Bubba, who has Autism, became upset. 

"That's when I asked him if he's ever done push ups before and he immediately started laughing and so I showed him how to do some push ups," Loftis said. "We did about 10 together. After that, his whole demeanor completely changed." 

First responders get some training on how to interact with those who have special needs but Captain Skyler Phillips, with the Chattanooga Fire Department, believes that may not be enough. 

"I'm just trying to make the world a little safer for my son and people like him," Phillips told a group of fire fighters during a training session in January. 

Phillips is using what he's learned as a parent of a child with Autism to educate others who wear a badge. 

"Another sign to look for, there's the echolalia, where they repeat what you say back," Phillips said, "If you see things like that, then you know that this might not be your typical call and you might have to think outside the box."

Phillips teamed up with LifeLine Ministries, a local non-profit that supports those with all disabilities, to create the Special Needs Awareness Program. 

It's designed to help first responders and families be better prepared. 

"We want them to know that it's okay if they need to call us," Phillips added. 

Reich says those living with Autism compute things differently. 

He compares it to owning an Apple computer when the rest of the world runs on PC's. They both perform the same tasks but can need a translator to make a connection.

Sometimes that connection can be a race car, a comic book character or in Bubba's case, push ups. 

"That builds rapport and it also kind of bring them into your world so they connect in that way," he said. 

And once that connection is made, it's one that will last a lifetime. 

"Every time I see him, it absolutely makes my day," Loftis said.

If you are interested in learning more about the SNAP program or training, click HERE

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