At right, Mimi’s Mission Executive Director Lisa Vilella demonstrates with Grosse Pointe Park Public Safety Lt. Terry Hays, center, how a weighted blanket from the 911 Ready bags can be used to comfort someone. Officer James Thompson also participates in the training.

At right, Mimi’s Mission Executive Director Lisa Vilella demonstrates with Grosse Pointe Park Public Safety Lt. Terry Hays, center, how a weighted blanket from the 911 Ready bags can be used to comfort someone. Officer James Thompson also participates in the training.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

Park hopes 911 Ready bags improve encounters with individuals who have autism

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published November 28, 2021


GROSSE POINTE PARK — Public safety officers in Grosse Pointe Park now have a new tool to improve their interactions with people on the autism spectrum.

In November, the department purchased 911 Ready bags for all department vehicles. Assembled by the Woodhaven-based nonprofit Mimi’s Mission, the bags contain a weighted blanket, a pair of noise-canceling headphones, a sensory noodle, squishy toys, snacks and a bottle of water.

Lisa Vilella, executive director of Mimi’s Mission, explained that the items in the bags can be used to calm and bring comfort to those with autism. Communication can be a challenge for those on the autism spectrum — some are largely nonverbal — and the flashing lights, shiny badges and loud noises that may accompany an encounter with police or other first responders can trigger anxiety in someone with autism. Vilella said different items in the bag will soothe different people with autism — some may find relief from the weighted blanket or the quiet peace produced by the headphones, while others might find a snack or small toy they can handle to be a welcome distraction during a stressful emergency situation.

Vilella also told officers what to watch for that might indicate someone is on the autism spectrum and how to communicate with them.

“Anything’s always good to have,” Park public safety officer Thomas Gamicchia said of the 911 Ready bags. “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. If one little thing helps that individual, it’s worth its weight in gold.”

Park public safety officer James Thompson said one bag was going in each of the scout cars, and there would also be one on the ambulance and in every firetruck.

Vilella said the bags that Mimi’s Mission puts together aren’t intended to be a moneymaker for the nonprofit — other organizations sell similar kits for substantially more, and Vilella drives around metro Detroit delivering the bags and leading training sessions for departments that acquire them. But as a group that has been working with individuals on the autism spectrum and their families since 2015, they saw a need for these bags.

“We’re doing this because it’s helping so many people — not only the community, but the first responders,” Vilella said.

She said the organization started offering the 911 Ready bags in April, and already about 25 law enforcement agencies in Michigan have purchased them.

“It will be useful — I guarantee it,” Park Lt. Terry Hays said.

Vilella recounted the story of a young man on the autism spectrum who is nonverbal but, because of his size — he’s 6 feet, 4 inches tall and approximately 400 pounds — can appear intimidating. He’s not dangerous, but police encountering him without knowing about his autism might not realize he doesn’t pose a threat to them.

“We’re trying to spend a lot more effort on being ready for anything that has to do with mental health,” Deputy Director Jim Bostock said. “This is just another tool to address those issues.”

And, as Vilella put it, it “isn’t just about mental illness,” either.

“It’s about having positive outcomes in the field,” she said.

Reports of those positive outcomes are already coming in. Last month, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department had two success stories from the 911 Ready bags. As one department official told Vilella via email, in one incident, a juvenile with autism was behaving aggressively toward his mother, and when officers arrived on the scene, the juvenile was agitated. A deputy began speaking with the juvenile and gave him some of the toys from the bag, almost immediately deescalating the situation and changing the juvenile’s mood, making him cooperative. As the deputy on the scene reported, “I believe it helped tremendously and would recommend using these bags with anyone that has autism.”

In addition to the bags, Mimi’s Mission provided the Park Public Safety Department with stickers that indicate there’s an autistic person in the vehicle. Anyone who wants a sticker for their vehicle — including nonresidents — can contact dispatch at (313) 822-7400 about acquiring one. If officers know there’s an autistic individual in the vehicle — whether it’s a passenger or the driver — they can approach that person differently to improve communication and reduce fear or anxiety.

Although the department wasn’t soliciting donations, Park Public Safety Director Bryan Jarrell said that anyone interested in purchasing a 911 Ready bag for the department could write out a check for $40 made out to Mimi’s Mission and drop it off at his office at Grosse Pointe Park City Hall. Officers will not be reusing the 911 Ready bags; when the bag can help an individual, the officer will give the individual the bag to keep.

“The more awareness that we spread, the better everyone is,” Vilella said.