Foundation providing autism sensory bags to first responders gaining ground

  • Northfield EMS Public Education Coordinator and Paramedic Erik Davidson is working to equip first responders with sensory bags to help in emergency situations involving people and patients with autism. Staff File Photo/Dan Little

  • Northfield EMS Public Education Coordinator and Paramedic Erik Davidson is working to equip first responders with sensory bags to help in emergency situations involving people and patients with autism. Staff File Photo/Dan Little

  • Chief Zack Smith of South County EMS accepts a few sensory sacks from Erik Davidson. Contributed Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 5/19/2020 1:38:54 PM

NORTHFIELD — Since its start this winter, the Start ’Em Early Foundation has officially been approved as a nonprofit and has delivered more than 35 “sensory sacks” to local public safety officials.

Started by Southwick couple Jo-Ann and Erik Davidson, the foundation provides sensory bags that are designed to help first responders in emergency situations involving people and patients with autism. Erik Davidson is the Northfield EMS public education coordinator and paramedic, while his wife, Jo-Ann, is a special education teacher in Chicopee.

After reading a story about a firefighter and medic conducting a similar project in the Midwest, Davidson was inspired to start his own effort in Franklin County. The Start ’Em Early Foundation is designed to bring autism awareness to first responders.

“Even with COVID-19 I have been delivering ‘sensory sacks’ all over the county, while respecting social distancing,” Davidson said. “Departments have really started to see the need for these sensory tools, even during the pandemic.”

The Start ’Em Early Foundation is raising money through a GoFundMe page to purchase supplies for the sensory bags, which are offered to any emergency services organization that requests them. Items can also be purchased through the foundation’s Amazon Wish List.

Some of Davidson’s planned deliveries of sensory bags include to the Rowe, Charlemont, Greenfield and Westfield fire departments, as well as to the Brewster Ambulance Service. He said the Start ’Em Early Foundation has also been invited to a Department of Fire Services’ conference in Southbridge at the end of September, where he’ll lead a workshop on the sensory bags.

According to Davidson, the bags contain items meant to help calm a nervous person or patient with autism who may be overwhelmed by an emergency situation or the noise and bright lights from first responders’ vehicles. The items in the sensory bags will help keep patients’ hands busy and make them feel more comfortable when being assessed by first responders.

Davidson said most people on the autism spectrum have sensory issues. For example, he said, his 11-year-old daughter, Janelle, who is on the autism spectrum, plays street hockey, but has to leave the rink when the siren blares due to her sensitivity to noise.

The sensory bags can either be given to patients at the scene of an emergency, or to a family member of the patient to help distract and calm them. The bags contain items that have helped comfort Janelle, as well as tools that Jo-Ann Davidson uses in her classroom, including noise-canceling headphones, a Rubik’s Cube, a coloring book and crayons, a mini paddle ball, Play-Doh, a shiny bead necklace, a weighted Beanie Baby, a Feelings Wheel, a stress ball, a fidget spinner, soap bubbles and a mini flute.

“My ultimate goal with the sensory sack project is to at least quip every ambulance in Massachusetts,” Davidson noted.

All sacks are provided free of charge. Deliveries made thus far include to Northfield EMS, Easthampton Fire Department, Becket Ambulance Department, Shelburne Falls Fire District, Southwick Fire Department, Southern Berkshire Ambulance Service, Sheffield Police Department, Rescue Inc. in Brattleboro, Vt., South County EMS, Turners Falls Fire Department and Colrain Volunteer Ambulance Association.

For more information about the Start ’Em Early Foundation, visit bit.ly/2Z8iTan.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.



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