Michigan State Police have joined the “Action for Autism” movement along with other law enforcement agencies to raise awareness for autism during Autism Awareness Month.
According to C&G News, officers are outfitting their vehicles with “calming bags” to help relax those with autism during any stressful situations they may have with first responders. The bags, which contain a varied assortment of 15 items, including fidget spinners, teddy bears, stress balls, coloring books and therapeutic silicone chewing items, will be handed out to autistic people and their families with help from community partners Blue Cross Blue Shield, Milestones Child Development Center and the Autism Alliance of Michigan.
Lieutenant Sarah Krebs of the Michigan State Police said that their agency is also working with autism experts to train officers on how to recognize the signs of autism and how to better communicate with people on the spectrum.
“With any community that we want to reach out to, there are communication barriers. This is one of the ways to bridge that gap with the autistic community. We want to train our officers to recognize common signs of autism and how to interact with them in constructive, positive ways. Bright lights and loud sirens can be intimidating to an autistic child, and if we are there, they may be going through a very difficult day already, so this helps us bridge that gap and lets us introduce ourselves as people who are there to help. Plus, they get a bag of some cool stuff.”
Hetal Patel, a community education and outreach manager with the Autism Alliance of Michigan, said that having stimulating activities can facilitate and ease interactions between people with autism (particularly children) and first responders.
“Individuals on the spectrum can have sensory issues where they process information differently than others may process information. Giving them some alternate sensory input can help them fill that craving for sensory information that is a common aspect of autism,” she said.
She said the bags could also be a useful tool: “When law enforcement runs into people on the spectrum, (the bags are) a tool they have in their back pocket to help calm individuals or help with that interaction, including in crisis situations.”
The MSP will go through a three-part program, including training, community outreach and equipping vehicles with the calming bags to be used during patrols. The MSP will also invite individuals with autism to voluntarily input their fingerprints into a database to help locate them in case they go missing.
Law enforcement agencies across the state are stepping up to join the initiative. “More than 30 agencies in Michigan signed on to include these bags in their vehicles. The contents are all a little different,” Krebs said. “The Northville Township police came up with it originally, and it spread out to other departments. Troy, Westland, Berkley, Ferndale, New Baltimore, Northville and the Macomb County Sheriff’s (Office) are just a few examples.”
Patel summarized the goal of the initiative as follows: “Ultimately, our goal is for first responders to have a successful interaction with those on the autism spectrum in the community … having communication tools, such as pictures they can use to help communicate basic ideas or critical wants and needs with police officers, is a big step for this community.”