Sensory bags placed in Farmington Hills Police Department vehicles can help first responders avoid potentially stressful interactions with autistic individuals.

Sensory bags placed in Farmington Hills Police Department vehicles can help first responders avoid potentially stressful interactions with autistic individuals.

Photo provided by Jill Pines


Farmington Hills PD increases services for autistic individuals

By: Mark Vest | Farmington Press | Published July 13, 2022

FARMINGTON HILLS — In 2021, the Farmington Hills Police Department equipped all of its patrol vehicles with sensory bags in an effort to help officers communicate with individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

The aim was also to comfort them “in a time of need,” according to a press release from the city of Farmington Hills.

This year, that effort has been expanded, with additional equipment now being carried in the sensory bags.

The bags are used by first responders as tools to help create a calm atmosphere and avoid potentially stressful situations.

The kind of items that can be found in sensory bags include fidget spinners, squishy toys, Play-Doh and earmuffs, which are designed to help calm individuals with autism by reducing sensory stimuli and providing a sense of comfort.

The department has partnered with the Jack’s Place for Autism Foundation in Southfield in order to gain insight on the latest methods used to reduce anxiety.

Jack’s Place has donated nonverbal cue cards, stuffed Bernese mountain dogs named “Augie” and autism awareness window clings to include in the sensory bags, along with weighted blankets, headphones, sunglasses and other handheld items aimed at relieving stress.

“The Farmington Hills Police Department is proud to partner with Jack’s Place to raise awareness, improve police response to emergency situations and increase services provided to the citizens of Farmington Hills,” Farmington Hills Police Chief Jeff King stated via the release.

This past April, during Autism Awareness Month, Jack’s Place autism awareness window clings were given out at the FHPD, with recipients being asked to apply the clings to highly visible glass surfaces in their homes or cars to alert officers that someone with autism is present in the vehicle or at the residence.

“The Farmington Hills Police Department will continue their awareness efforts by placing autism awareness car magnets on all patrol vehicles,” the release states.

This past January, every responding Farmington Hills Fire Department vehicle also began carrying autism sensory and communication bags, with each of the bags being equipped with tools to help firefighter/paramedic personnel when they treat someone on the spectrum.

“We’ve been talking about it for a few years, but everything that’s happened with COVID caused us to put certain projects on hold,” Farmington Hills Fire Department Lt. Jim Etzin said earlier this year. “For many years, there has been some autism training specific to emergency responders, but these kits or bags have just recently become available in the last few years.”

Etzin added that the department wants to “deliver outstanding service to everyone in our community, including people with special needs, so when training or a product comes along that helps us do that, we’re all for it.”

Aside from being a special needs director at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, Stephanie Zoltowski is a psychologist and former member of the military police.

She shared how autism sensory and communication bags can help individuals on the spectrum when first responders arrive at a scene.

“For people that are on the autism spectrum, they’re very visual people, and so anything that they can see that has a lot of colors or different texture or functions, those are going to be really great attention-grabbers that will take away from, if there’s a lot of people in the background or if there’s loud noises,” Zoltowski said earlier this year. “A fidget really helps them to look at the colors that they see, how big the fidget is or if it’s a Rubik’s Cube or something like that. It helps them stay focused on what’s in their hands, as opposed to everything going on in the environment.”

The sensory bags have the potential to help prevent police and firefighter/paramedic calls from turning violent.

“We could be dealing with anyone ranging from a small child to an adult. When they become uncomfortable, they certainly can act out, not only verbally, but physically as well,” Etzin said.  “No one wants that to happen, because we don’t want them to potentially hurt (themselves) or others by physically reacting to an uncomfortable situation. … And then it puts our firefighter/paramedics and police officers in a difficult position because we have someone in front of us that requires medical attention, yet their behavior at the time may not be conducive to that.”

Etzin is a proponent of the positive difference sensory bags can make when first responders encounter individuals on the spectrum.

“We want those individuals, when we encounter them, to feel more comfortable,” he said. “The contents within those kits can help put them (at) ease (and) can help distract them, which facilitates a better chance our firefighter/paramedics do the things that need to be done to take care of that person.”

For more information about the FHPD’s sensory bags, call (248) 871-2760. For more information about the Jack’s Place for Autism Foundation, visit jacksplaceforautism.org.