The Michigan State Police is putting more than 1,250 calming bags in all of its patrol vehicles to help during interactions with people on the autism spectrum.

The Michigan State Police is putting more than 1,250 calming bags in all of its patrol vehicles to help during interactions with people on the autism spectrum.

Photo provided by the Michigan State Police

State police outfit vehicles with calming kits to help people with autism

By: Brendan Losinski | Metro | Published April 4, 2021

METRO DETROIT — April is Autism Awareness Month, and the Michigan State Police is joining with other law enforcement agencies to not only raise awareness about autism, but also include new calming bags in their patrol vehicles.

The calming bags will be given out to people on the autism spectrum or their families, if desired. They are designed to help people with autism cope with the often stressful nature of interacting with first responders.

“With any community that we want to reach out to, there are communication barriers,” explained Lt. Sarah Krebs, of the Michigan State Police. “This is one of the ways to bridge that gap with the autistic community. We want to train our officers to recognize common signs of autism and how to interact with them in constructive, positive ways. Bright lights and loud sirens can be intimidating to an autistic child, and if we are there, they may be going through a very difficult day already, so this helps us bridge that gap and lets us introduce ourselves as people who are there to help. Plus, they get a bag of some cool stuff.”

The MSP worked with autism experts to help train officers and form effective plans for interacting with people who are on the autism spectrum.

“Michigan State Police’s Lt. Krebs reached out to us early this year as they were putting these bags together and were asking for insight into what should be in the bags,” said Hetal Patel, a community education and outreach manager with the Autism Alliance of Michigan. “As we spoke, we also offered our Michigan Autism Safety Training where we train first responders on autism awareness. This safety training would go hand in hand with the bags. We haven’t completed the training, but it will be going on virtually throughout the month of April.”

The bags will contain various items to help communicate effectively with people on the autism spectrum and help provide them with stimuli that can be relaxing in stressful situations.

“The Michigan State Police bags will have 15 items in it,” said Krebs. “There is a fidget spinner; a silicon chew; a nonverbal cue card to help communicate with nonverbal people; a stress ball; a Trooper Teddy, which is an MSP-specific stuffed bear; as well as other items such as coloring books.”

Patel said that having stimulating activities can make dealing with first responders far more manageable for people with autism, particularly children.

“Individuals on the spectrum can have sensory issues where they process information differently than others may process information. Giving them some alternate sensory input can help them fill that craving for sensory information that is a common aspect of autism,” she said. “When law enforcement runs into people on the spectrum, (the bags are) a tool they have in their back pocket to help calm individuals or help with that interaction, including in crisis situations.”

The calming bags are part of a wider effort on the part of the state police to better address the needs of the autism community.

“The program is three parts,” said Krebs. “It is training for our enforcement members for first response for people with autism. The second part is a social media campaign throughout the month of April. The third is outfitting our patrol cars with these calming bags.”

The program also includes measures where individuals on the autism spectrum can be voluntarily entered into the fingerprint database so that they might more easily be found and returned home if they went missing.

“The VIP Legislation, which stands for ‘vulnerable or impaired persons,’ was passed because the only ways before that someone could be fingerprinted was either through employment or if they were arrested, which does not include many of these individuals,” said Krebs. “This allows us to fingerprint them so if they go missing we have their fingerprints in the database.”

The Autism Alliance of Michigan provided the MSP with training for free, thanks to a grant. The MSP also received donations for the bag contents from the alliance, as well as Meijer, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Milestones Learning Centers in Grand Rapids.

Statewide, there were more than 1,250 bags made. They will be in the trunks of every marked MSP unit across the state. Commercial Vehicle Enforcement units also will have them so every enforcement role will have one in the trunk. Krebs’ hope is that every April, they will be able to replenish the bags and that will be an initiative that the MSP takes for Autism Awareness Month every year.

“More than 30 agencies in Michigan signed on to include these bags in their vehicles. The contents are all a little different,” she said. “The Northville Township police came up with it originally, and it spread out to other departments,” said Krebs. “Troy, Westland, Berkley, Ferndale, New Baltimore, Northville and the Macomb County Sheriff’s (Office) are just a few examples.”

Patel said that these measures will be a big step in helping ensure that people on the autism spectrum are properly protected across the state.

“Ultimately, our goal is for first responders to have successful interaction with those on the autism spectrum in the community. They need to be able to recognize the signs of autism and communicate effectively with them. We want those in the autism community to feel safe and know that first responders are there for them,” she said. “Training would consist of expanding first responders’ knowledge of autism, how to identify signs of it, how to effectively communicate with them, what questions to ask them and safety risks for people with autism.”

She added that people often take the ability to communicate for granted. Being able to communicate with a police officer can be a major development in an emergency situation.

“Having communication tools, such as pictures they can use to help communicate basic ideas or critical wants and needs with police officers, is a big step for this community,” Patel remarked. “It’s important to mention that autism is an invisible disability. You can’t tell by appearance, so being able to recognize it is a huge step for helping those in the autistic community.”