t happened in a flash. Frank Pulcinello Sr. turned his back for a moment, and when he turned back his son, Frankie, was gone.
"It seemed like it was 30 seconds. It was probably no more than 10," Pulcinello, 38, of Bellwood said, remembering an evening this summer when he and his son had gone to his dad's home in Bellwood to feed fish at a pond on the property.
When any child disappears, it's terrifying for the parents. For the Pulcinello family, it's compounded: Frankie, 7, who is autistic, does not respond when his name is called and has no sense of danger.
Frank checked the usual spots he might find his son - a nearby stream, a swing set, the house - but with no luck. Neighbors joined in the search, and Frank called 911 for assistance.
About a half hour after Frankie disappeared, Jeff Wertz, who was visiting family in the neighborhood, found Frankie. The boy, who is attracted to water but cannot swim, was naked and approaching an 8-foot-deep swimming hole in Bell's Run Creek.
Wertz snatched the boy out of danger.
"He saved his life. I don't know if he gets that," Becky Pulcinello, Frankie's mom, said of Wertz. "He's definitely our hero."
Despite a few minor injuries when the boy bit his rescuer, Frankie's story had a happy ending. But his parents were left wanting to make others more aware of what comes with raising a child with autism and keeping him or her safe.
"I don't want other parents to think [I believe] I'm in a worse place than they are," Becky, 35, said. "In our situation, [a problem] can occur a lot faster and more often."
Adjusting to autism
It is important emergency responders receive specialized training to help those with any kind of intellectual or developmental disability, Arc of Blair County Executive Director Maria Brandt said in an email.
"Autism is a diagnosis which has several layers, a broad spectrum," she said. "Each individual has his/her own personal characteristic and cannot be stereotyped into what to expect. ... Each situation may be different and how to respond will need to be adjusted."
Dennis Debbaudt, author, speaker, private investigator and founder of Autism Risk & Safety Management, developed training material to help educate law enforcement about autism.
Pennsylvania state police and the Department of Homeland Security, among others, use his training video, "Autism & Law Enforcement Roll Call Briefing Video."
A first responder needs to have the knowledge to recognize the signs of someone with autism and an understanding that "they will be the person in the interaction who will make adjustments," not the person with autism, Debbaudt said.
Calls involving individuals with autism could take longer, he said. When it is safe to do so, they have to use patience and simplify their words and actions in order to give the person with autism time to process the request.
He advises police to be aware of the sights, sounds and odors around the person with autism, and how they might affect the person's behavior. Stimuli such as the lights on an emergency vehicle can either over- or underwhelm a person with autism.
A fact sheet from the Law Enforcement Awareness Network offers a long list of behaviors that people with autism may exhibit when encountering emergency responders. They may not recognize first responders' vehicles, badges or uniforms; may not respond to commands; or may not be able to verbally communicate.
Carl Moen, deputy director of the Southern Alleghenies EMS Council, said training in how to respond to someone with autism has been going on for several years.
Although data is collected from patient care reports on a national level, no tracking is done on how many people with autism are encountered on the job, he said.
At a basic level, he said, students are "taught how to deal with the special needs population," which includes people with autism. They have also offered training in continuing education classes in the past, he said.
The training includes how to communicate with someone with a special need, approach them in a non-threatening way and involve caregivers and family in order to learn the best way to work with an individual, Moen said.
Jeff Blake, an EMS educator at Penn Highlands Community College, said firefighters do not receive specific training in how to handle people with autism, but a special needs category is covered.
Instructors try to teach first responders that when working with someone with a special need, they should try to get on his or her level, look him in the eye, keep movements in check and try to limit or remove any elements that could scare someone.
"Firefighters sometimes cannot remove some of the barriers. For instance, a firefighter trying to rescue someone cannot remove all their gear to make it less scary," he said. "The responder has to act."
State police receive instruction on special needs during their time in the academy, said Trooper Jeff Petucci, a spokesman for state police at Hollidaysburg.
The six-hour block of instruction includes the topic of autism, he said. In addition, all state police completed the online "Autism and Law Enforcement" training in summer 2011.
"Our training teaches the 'best practices' when dealing with someone who [has autism] and covers characteristics/tendencies of children and adults [with autism]," he said. "Specifically when dealing and communicating with [a person with autism], law enforcement officers need to be patient and give the person time to express their thoughts."
Special needs training for state police began six years ago, Petucci said.
"We work with various agencies, mental health experts and a medical doctor to ensure our training is progressive and effective," he said. "The Pennsylvania state police are sensitive to these issues, and the goal to our training is to help troopers identify that something is different about a person and then get them the help they need."
Help for both sides
Training is for the safety of the officer and the person with autism, said Logan Township Police Sgt. John Flinn, speaking specifically about municipal police.
Training comes from the Municipal Police Officers' Education & Training Commission.
Flinn, who is an instructor with the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Criminal Justice Training Center, said municipal police began receiving training to recognize special needs as a result of a case involving a man with autism who was injured during an encounter with Penbrook Borough police in Harrisburg.
Penbrook Borough police suspected John Washington III was a peeping Tom when they spotted him looking through a window to his own home in 1993, the Associated Press reported. Washington, who was 18 at the time, was unable to respond to police and suffered a dislocated shoulder during his arrest. The family received an undisclosed legal settlement after suing the borough.
When encountering someone with autism today, police are trained to use simple language, speak slowly and clearly, use concrete terms and ideas, repeat simple questions and allow 10 to 15 seconds for a response, Flinn said.
Sometimes someone with autism can be attracted to shiny objects, making an officer's badge or gun tempting, he said.
If police need backup on a call involving someone with a mental health need, workers are available through Altoona Regional, Flinn said.
"They do a great job," he said.
Making a plan; taking action
Debbaudt, whose son with autism is now 29, said when his son was a child and would get upset outside their home, people would misinterpret the interaction as a kidnapping and call police, putting them at "sudden, direct high risk with police," he said.
He suggests families provide information to local emergency responders such as law enforcement, 911 centers and fire departments. Information should include the basics - name, birthdate, height, weight and a current photo - plus medical conditions, method of communication, favorite attractions or locations, and ways to calm the child.
An autism emergency contact form is available on the Autism Risk & Safety Management website.
Becky said a local friend had magnets made up with contact information to hand out to neighbors because her child with autism has a fascination with fans and will sneak away to get closer to them.
The magnets allow for neighbors to have quick access to information on who to call if they would find the child.
"As with all children, parents need to keep a close watch on their kids at all times. Autistic children do have tendencies to wander away, so parents with children [with autism] need to be extra vigilant and keep a close eye on them," Petucci said.
"Keep a current photo with you in case you become separated when out in public, and if the child is able, make sure they know their address and telephone number," he added.
If the person with autism is non-verbal, they can carry an information card with them.
More training: more peace of mind
Blake holds autism close to his heart.
He has a nephew with autism and as a member of the Logan Township United Fire Department, he helped to raise money to get a service dog for John Hanna, the son of Assistant District Chief Gary Hanna. John, 8, who is visually impaired and has autism.
Lakemont, Greenwood and Hollidaysburg Lions clubs, the Lions Sight Foundation of Blair County and several volunteer firefighters from Grandview and Kittanning Point and the family also helped to raise $13,000 needed for the dog.
"With the dog, John will be more controlled in his actions," Lakemont Lions Secretary Larry Edwards said. "This will give a great peace of mind to his family."
Blake said he was going to look into improving the training regarding autism offered through the EMS education he conducts.
"It doesn't matter who you are working with, you want to help the person and be as effective as possible in the response and the delivery of care," Blake said.
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.