How 'sensory bags' in ambulances can help patients with autism

Published: Feb. 26, 2020 at 4:12 PM EST
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Ambulances are loud, their flashing lights are bright and the exhaust smells. For people with autism, whose senses are often heightened, that can make an ambulance ride very stressful. Our Olivia Lyons shows you how one fire department is rolling out new tools to help in these situations.

Barre and Montpelier first responders are learning how to better navigate situations involving people on the autism spectrum.

"It can be a great deal of challenge or it can be something that when you are in that emergency situation, it kind of takes you out of your ability to respond and so you might need a little extra support," said Erin Rose of Washington County Mental Health.

The two departments are the first in the state to implement sensory bags. Washington County Mental Health Services is providing five ambulance units with the bags from fundraising dollars.

"When we are dealing with someone on the autism spectrum, they really can be physical, they can be out of control, they can hurt themselves and having tools in our tool chest allows us to really be able to diffuse them and make it a better experience," Barre Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Aldsworth said.

Each bag is equipped with a weighted blanket and different tools to relieve anxiety or to help patients dealing with sensory overload stay calm in an emergency situation.

Tracy Thresher and Scott Brodie both have autism. They took part in the training to show how the tools can be used, giving first responders a glimpse at challenges someone with autism faces on a daily basis, like communicating and focusing on different tasks.

Rose says education about sensory differences can make a huge difference.

"If someone is plugging their ears or jumping up and down, they are having an experience in that moment, but it doesn't mean they don't understand what is going on," she said.

"Hopefully, it will catch on and go statewide," Aldsworth said. "I know that phase two, we plan to implement this in all the ambulances in District Ambulance 6."

Thresher likes to say, "If you've met one person with autism, you've only met one person," meaning everyone reacts differently. That's what makes these sensory bags so important.