Autism Council of Utah distributes sensory bags to law enforcement, emergency rooms

Oct 2, 2023, 7:35 PM

MURRAY — A Utah organization spent the weekend handing out hundreds of autism sensory bags to rural law enforcement agencies, to help officers and deputies who come into contact with a person with an autism diagnosis or a disability.

The Autism Council of Utah is now expanding who has access to these autism sensory bags, and the places they’re dropping them off at report the bags are already helping people.

Michelle Hiles put three blue bags on a table Monday and pulled out a few simple items: Headphones, a picture exchange communication system (PECS), a pamphlet with numbers and resources, and fidget toys.

She knows the items can make a huge difference for people with an autism diagnosis when they experience emergency situations.

“It’s unfamiliar territory. It’s something they don’t have control over,” she explained. “So, it’s scary and it’s chaotic.”

Thanks to funding from Doug Smith Subaru, she explained that volunteers have put together hundreds of autism sensory bags to hand out to sheriff’s offices and police departments.

“They’re usually, you know, covering their ears. So, if you offer them some headphones, they immediately will put them on,” she explained, about how the headphones help. She talked about how the communication boards came with a marker to draw on. “They can either point to words that might help communicate, or they can use the alphabet on the back to spell things. Or it can be a distraction tool.”

Millard County S.O. autism bags courtesyMichelle Hiles 100223

Michelle Hiles, center right, stands with employees at the Millard County Sheriff’s Office after they received autism sensory bags for deputies (Michelle Hiles)

Last weekend, Hiles took a road trip to rural central Utah to visit hard-to-reach communities.

She passed out a couple hundred bags to deputies in Juab, Millard, Emery, and Carbon Counties.

But she also made a trip to the University of Utah hospital Saturday, and Hiles explained she’s hoping to expand and hand out bags in Utah emergency rooms and fire departments.

Hiles met up with Dr. Deborah Bilder, a professor at the University of Utah Huntsman Mental Health Institute Department of Psychiatry.

“When I first got the bag, I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s just a few items in here,'” Dr. Bilder said, looking down at a bag that sat next to her. “And then as I started looking at them, I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is great!'”

Dr. Bilder described how the bags immediately helped a patient in the U of U ER after Hiles dropped them off Saturday.

“He does not have language; he doesn’t have words. So, this was a PECS– he started using it to communicate,” Dr. Bilder said, holding up the PECS board. She then grabbed the headphones. “It’s very loud in emergency rooms. He had these to help muffle the noise.”

He was also playing with the fidget toys.

Dr. Bilder called the sensory bag a “life saver” and said the patient appreciated the opportunity to communicate and have stimulation in a sterile setting.

And it allowed hospital staff to connect and engage with the patient.

“It is so nice to be able to really communicate in a manner that they understand, to recognize their sensory needs, to respond to them, and to connect, and really bridge those otherwise two different worlds,” Dr. Bilder said.

Hiles said the Autism Council of Utah has passed out 3,000 bags since the program began. Volunteers recently made 600 autism sensory bags to distribute, and the organization is hoping to make 600 more in the near future.

They’ve now visited law enforcement agencies in 19 counties in Utah, Hiles said, and they hope these bags will become tools of calm during chaos in every single county and corner of the state.

“Nobody wants to have to call 911,” she said. “But when they do, we want we want it to be a positive experience for people that we just need a little extra help.”

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Autism Council of Utah distributes sensory bags to law enforcement, emergency rooms