AVON, Conn. (WTNH) — Last month, a teen with autism was shot by police in Utah after his mom called 911 looking for help during a mental health crisis. A team, including a local expert, believes they can provide tools and training to help avoid these tragic situations.
“Every situation is different. You never know how to handle them,” says Detective Justin Severs of the Saginaw Township Police Department in Michigan. When he had a son with autism, it made him reflect on past calls at work.
“Having Carter, it was one of those things, you realize how one wrong thing can change the way they see things,” he says. “When he wants it, he wants it now to where, in the police force, we see it as resisting, they see it as everyday life.”
So, through mutual friends, he partnered with a firefighter and a clinical neuropsychologist in Avon, Connecticut with medical and “mom” knowledge.
“Working with my own daughter, I know for a fact who she is and how she presents,” says Dr. Ellen Preen. The unique team created Carter Kits. The sensory bags provide first responders with tools to help a person on the spectrum calm down.
Preen holds-up the non-verbal cue card, key in a crisis.
“There are tons of pictures on it that help us communicate with the children,” she says, pointing to illustrations of faces with different emotions. The cards also show pictures of a home, the police department, and the hospital.
There are soothing, sensory toys.
“If you give them something to hold to distract themselves, I’ll take that one minute they’re distracted,” says Preen, reaching for another item in the bag. “Noises can be overwhelming. Then they can put on these noise-canceling headphones.”
A few hundred kits have already been distributed. Preen says communities are organizing fundraising events then donating kits to local departments.
“I think it’s a needed conversation, an important one,” says Preen.
“They help because they help people,” says 6-year-old Carter, on a Zoom call from Michigan.
Severs says tools and training can de-escalate a situation that could be traumatic for all involved…especially a person with autism who could build trust with a first responder through the kit.
“Next time they see me, they might be happy to see me rather than upset or angry, so anything that will help,” he says.
Seven of the kits – which cost about $80.00 apiece – will soon be distributed in Avon.
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