Imagine the sensory overload for an autistic child traveling by ambulance to emergency care, especially when the shrill of sirens sound for safe passage through traffic.
Erik Davidson, a paramedic with Northfield EMS, and his wife Jo-Ann, a special education teacher, have learned that alarms, such as the sound for school fire drills, are unsettling to their 12-year-old autistic daughter, Janelle.
Hoping to minimize such trauma for children across Massachusetts, the couple worked with autism specialists to develop Sensory Sacks.
Each item in the sack was selected in consultation with educational and sensory awareness specialists.
They include noise-canceling headphones for those sensitive to loud noises, a Rubik’s Cube, a weighted stuffed animal, a stress ball, a feelings wheel, a fidget spinner, Play-Doh, bubbles, a mini paddle ball, a mini- flute and a marble fidget tube.
The sacks, which had been going out to fire departments in Western Massachusetts, have arrived in Worcester County and may soon go nationwide.
The Davidsons established the Start Em Early Foundation, a nonprofit that teaches youth the basics of CPR, first aid and community service. Most instructors are volunteers who work in the fields of firefighting, EMS and law enforcement. Some are certified first responders.
Sensory Sack is the foundation’s signature project. The sacks are donated to fire, police, and medical agencies to aid in treating and interacting with patients who have sensory challenges.
“When I first started the project, my key thing was with her (Janelle) and sound,” Davidson said.
Many of the sack items are geared toward keeping children occupied.
“It’s all sensory acceptable stuff. Like the Play-Doh. Everybody loves Play-Doh. You’ve got the scent, the color and the squishiness,” Davidson said.
More than 50 sacks have been donated to 15 or so Western Massachusetts fire departments.
“My goal is to outfit the whole state,” Davidson said. “The next step is going into the Worcester area.”
Davidson and Central Massachusetts coordinator Misty Wisuri, a registered nurse and a paramedic with Worcester EMS, presented the first such area donation to the Dudley Fire Department on July 9.
Fire Chief Dean C. Kochanowski received a review of each item in the sacks donated to his department.
“I think the items in these kits are very calming,” the chief said. “The ambulance can be an experience for anyone, but I imagine it’s one hundred times worse for someone who has autism.”
Since the donation in Dudley, Wisuri has supplied three kits to the Bellingham Fire Department, two to Auburn, two to Douglas, three to Spencer, and she is set to deliver 10 kits to Worcester EMS on Aug. 10.
Wisuri met Davidson when they worked together at Milford Regional Medical Center and she decided to help distribute the calming care kits.
“I’ve been with Worcester EMS for 18 years and we haven’t had anything like this on the truck,” Wisuri said.
Until this week, the one-time use sacks were supported by community donations. Davidson announced Wednesday that Primum Non Nocere Foundation Inc. is sponsoring the Start Em Early Foundation going forward.
“This organization will help us purchase supplies, custom logo bags and distribute the Sensory Sacks nationwide,” Davidson said. “This is an exciting development.”