The lights, chaos, and disruptions of an emergency situation are hard enough for everyone. They can be completely overwhelming for those with autism. With this in mind, rural Ravalli County, Montana worked to ensure people with sensory issues have a little less stress in these circumstances.
First responders in the area have begun receiving donations of sensory kits. Ravalli Electric Co-op raised the money necessary for the effort as part of its Power of Change program. That allows members to round their bills up, with the increase benefitting local organizations. This time, $2,800 went to the Heartism Community Center, which provides education, socialization, and art exploration for families with children on the autism spectrum. The money was enough for 125 kits.
Ravalli Electric Co-op said the first boxes of the sensory kits were given to County Sheriff Steve Holton to distribute to his staff. The rest will be given to other groups throughout the Bitterroot Valley. The goal is to help calm adults and children with autism and other special needs in crisis situations.
Sheriff Holton told KPAX-TV in Missoula, “They’re a perfect tool for our deputies. They’re small, they don’t take up any room in a car, but they’re always there when we need one. So, we’re, we just feel really fortunate to be receiving these.”
The project comes after a July fire in the community left three dead and led to the evacuations of neighbors, one of whom has autism. Heartism founder Jessica Fitzpatrick and her daughter were awoken by knocks at their door, telling them to get out of the building.
She said, “It was very scary. I was half awake wondering what was going on but instantly felt the intense heat of the fire.”
She went to wake up her 16-year-old daughter, Sequoia, who is on the autism spectrum, but she didn’t want to leave. Fitzpatrick explains that Sequoia’s routine is very important, and this sudden crisis was disrupting it.
The lights, sirens, and emergency vehicles were also sensory overload. Though Sequoia has noise-canceling headphones, Fitzpatrick forgot to put them on her with the intensity of the situation.
Fortunately, she was able to get both of them out safely, and the incident made her realize the need for help for families who may face similar situations. That’s what led to the idea of the kits, which include noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses to dim overwhelming lights, tactile toys, and other calming items.
Fitzpatrick is glad local fire and police will have them. She said, “Sadly, there was an incident recently in California where a mother went back into her burning home to help rescue her son with autism. She could not get him to come out and both the mother and son perished in the fire. Having personally experienced this and knowing how many others in the community might experience this as well, I want our families and rescue teams to have tools that could be useful in these dire situations.”
Heartism celebrated the kits in a post on their Facebook page, thanking the co-op members who made this community need possible.Whizzco