Confident Crisis Communicators Two high school-based SLPs organize a program to help students with complex communication needs interact with emergency responders. School Matters
Free
School Matters  |   September 01, 2018
Confident Crisis Communicators
Author Notes
  • Jillyan St. Laurent, MA, CCC-SLP, works through EBS Healthcare at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Maryland. She has worked with students of all ages in her six years as a school-based clinician, and recently began working with children and adolescents with complex needs and augmentative and alternative communication. jillyan.stlaurent@carrollk12.org
    Jillyan St. Laurent, MA, CCC-SLP, works through EBS Healthcare at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Maryland. She has worked with students of all ages in her six years as a school-based clinician, and recently began working with children and adolescents with complex needs and augmentative and alternative communication. jillyan.stlaurent@carrollk12.org×
  • Rebecca Keyes, MS, CCC-SLP, is a clinician at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Maryland. rebecca.keyes@carrollk12.org
    Rebecca Keyes, MS, CCC-SLP, is a clinician at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Maryland. rebecca.keyes@carrollk12.org×
Article Information
School-Based Settings / School Matters
School Matters   |   September 01, 2018
Confident Crisis Communicators
The ASHA Leader, September 2018, Vol. 23, 34-35. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.23092018.34
The ASHA Leader, September 2018, Vol. 23, 34-35. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.23092018.34
Have you ever wondered how your students with complex communication needs would react in a crisis? Would they know how to use their speech-generating devices appropriately to communicate identifying information? Would the first responder know how to interact with someone with complex communication needs? Would your students even feel comfortable if approached by a first responder?
We found ourselves asking these questions last fall. As many of our students prepared to exit public education, we decided we needed to act.
Getting to know first responders
In January, we scheduled a meeting with officers at the Westminster, Maryland, police department. We began with this small, local police department because they are often first on the scene of an emergency. We learned about the department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), which is called to assist people with special communication needs. These officers receive rigorous training for engaging people with disabilities, addictions and mental illnesses.
CIT members understand ways to de-escalate and problem-solve challenging situations. They talked to us about how they feel our students can best succeed when interacting with emergency personnel and what information they need to express.

Students learned to independently use their devices or basic language skills to express their name, disability and need for assistance.

Shortly after our meeting with the CIT officers, we began working with our students on what identifying information to give first responders and how to do it. Students learned to independently use their devices or basic language skills to express their name, disability and the need for assistance if being questioned further. They practiced these skills during individual and group sessions for more than two months. We also had them practice with other school staff to build their confidence, then role-play mock crises in which they gave their name and details of the emergency.
In late March, our local CIT visited our school. The officers first met with students individually to gain a better understanding of their communication abilities and learn about their speech-generating devices. The officers suggested placing emergency contact information on each device’s home screen. They also spent time building rapport with nervous students. A few minutes into the event, students and officers were laughing and joking with one another.
Officers then led small-group discussions with students to review how best to react in an emergency and what information to share with first responders. The students also watched videos of emergencies and described them to officers.
A week later, we took our students to the local police station. Students recognized many police officers, who remembered our students’ names as well. After a CIT member gave us a tour of the station, the police chief personally greeted and interacted with the students. We also met the K-9 officer! The highlight for most of our students was getting free sunglasses emblazoned with the police department’s logo.

Our students can now independently self-identify and comfortably communicate with emergency personnel. We also noticed an overall improvement in their confidence, maturity and self-awareness.

Tapping local resources
Another helpful group we discovered is the Maryland Pathfinders for Autism, which provides free resources, programs and information to families of children with autism. We contacted Pathfinders with our safety concerns and found out they help train our local police CITs and other first responders.
The Pathfinders run a “Be Safe” program, which helps people with autism and other communication disorders communicate in a crisis. We invited them to bring the program to our school, which they did in May. Our students once again interacted with their familiar friends from the CIT and worked through scenarios with the officers. Each student also received an identification card stating their disability.
Thrilled with our students’ progress, we wanted parents to see what their children learned. Near the end of the school year, we hosted an evening parent event and invited CIT members and Pathfinders representatives. We also included members of the Maryland Masons, a group that provides free children’s identification kits that include picture, fingerprints, DNA swabs and video clips of the child’s mannerisms.
Parents heard from each group and asked questions. We felt the evening helped them gain a better understanding of what may happen in an emergency and how they can best prepare. Parents told us they felt relieved to learn about the CIT and their training to specifically work with their children.
When we started this project, we were clueless about local crisis-response training resources for our students with complex communication disorders. After working with them on interacting with first responders and organizing these events, we felt more confident in their ability to handle an emergency situation. Our students can now independently self-identify and comfortably communicate with emergency personnel. We also noticed an overall improvement in their confidence, maturity and self-awareness.
We plan to maintain an ongoing relationship with the CIT police officers and Pathfinders for Autism to help future students learn the same skills, inform more parents and help everyone feel more assured about the safety of children and young adults with any type of communication disorder as they transition from high school into young adulthood.
2 Comments
September 8, 2018
Demitra Wilder
Great Idea! Great Job!
Thanks so much for this information. The effort you made was amazing and so obviously good for kids. The clear step by step description inspires me to look into this for my students, in RI.
September 8, 2018
Ann Slone
How Can We Bring This to Our Region
Thanks so much for this information. I have a nephew works for a CIT in the San Marcos TX area. I am going to share this possibility with him of working through the area high schools to do these kinds of trainings.
Submit a Comment
Submit A Comment
Name
Comment Title
Comment


This feature is available to Subscribers Only
Sign In or Create an Account ×
FROM THIS ISSUE
September 2018
Volume 23, Issue 9