I remember the day like it was yesterday: November 13, 2013.  It was the day my life changed; not for the better, not necessarily for the worse.  It just changed.  On November 13, 2013 my youngest son, Micah, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.  

Since Micah was very young, my wife, Teresa, and I noticed something different in him that we did not see in our two older boys.  Teresa was the first to notice something odd.  Perhaps it was his constant humming when he would focus on something or his delay in communication abilities.  But it wasn’t until we received the formal diagnosis on November 13, 2013 before I finally accepted the fact that my son was “different”.  From that day, my life has been different.  It is filled with doctor’s appointments, meetings, and on occasion, embarrassing melt-downs in public places.  To those who don’t know Micah he can seem in those instances like a spoiled five-year old boy who doesn’t get his way.  But in reality, he’s a caring, loving and energetic boy who enjoys football and Power Rangers and is filled with compassion for others. 

The autism spectrum population is growing at a steady rate.  Many non-profit organizations can no longer meet the increased demand for services or have long wait lists to accommodate those with a new diagnosis.  School districts are reevaluating their educational programs to meet the needs of the steadily growing population.   New schools are being constructed that are designed to handle the unique needs of these students.  If you are involved in the planning of a school that will serve those with sensory processing disorder, I would encourage you to ask questions to ensure the design meets the needs of the population.  As a Fire Marshal I’ve inspected school buildings designed for students with special needs.   I’ve received phone calls from frustrated principals and superintendents after staff has been sent to the hospital because they were attacked by a special needs student who became violent when the fire alarm activated.  I am certainly not condoning violence by those on the spectrum, but it would be remiss if we didn’t evaluate what caused the student to react the way they did and to try to prevent future occurrences.  

There are other options.  FLSC can work with your local school district, business, or non-profit organization to ensure all applicable fire and life safety requirements are met; while also providing a more calming and sensory friendly environment for those on the autism spectrum.  FLSC has been consulted or been involved in the fire and life safety design of autism programs around the country.

Odds are someone you know has been affected by autism spectrum disorder.   Before November 13, 2013, I had no idea this disorder would have such an impact on my life.  While we aren’t able to completely eliminate autism spectrum, we can work to incorporate into buildings an autism friendly design strategy for those affected by this disorder. There is no “one size fit’s all" approach to this issue.  As a parent of an autistic child, I can say if we can eliminate or even reduce the number and severity of the episodes experienced by those on the spectrum by including autism friendly design features in buildings, this will benefit everyone involved.

John Swanson

Fire & Life Safety Consulting, LLC