Streetsboro police are now better prepared to support people with autism

The Streetsboro Police Department now keeps kits like this in its patrol cars. Photo via Hussman Institute for Autism

Streetsboro police have a new toolkit to help officers interact with and comfort people with autism.

The department has now stocked each patrol car with an “autism sensory kit,” donated free of charge from the Hussman Institute for Autism, a Maryland organization dedicated to improving the lives of people and families affected by autism.

Accompanied by a five-minute training video, each kit includes communication boards, dry erase cards and markers, noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, liquid bubbler (kind of like a lava lamp), push pop fidgets, stress balls, and plush dogs, all packaged in clear backpack-style bags.

Each kit also provides officers with tips on assisting and interacting with people with autism. School Resource Officer Kyle French, who located the kits, said he does not know of any instances in which Streetsboro first responders needed to communicate with people with autism, but he said it’s always a possibility.

Who knows what officers might be faced with when they are called to a family situation or any other type of crime scene? Safety is job one, and communication is key to success.

Unfortunately, French said, people with autism may struggle with communication, and stressful situations — such as those that involve police — may render communication all but impossible.

The autism kits provide a crucial bridge. Now, each Streetsboro patrol car is outfitted with an “autism kit” that will be a permanent part of officers’ on-board gear.

Officers may share sentence starter cards, which encourage people to tell police their name, age, and phone number, or provide any I.D. cards they have.

“I need…” cards break additional barriers, easing the way for people to tell authorities that they need help, food, water, a break or a restroom. “I feel…” cards allow people to indicate fear, confusion, hurt, sadness, anger or anxiety.

There are also cards for police to use: to indicate who they are, to offer help, and to indicate that it (whatever “it” may be at the moment) is OK. Officers are also equipped with lists of reassuring phrases such as “I am here to help,” “You are safe,” “I know you want (blank), “I will help you (blank).”

Helpful tutorials — most one sentence and none longer than a few — provide police with guidance as to when and how to use each item.

The noise-canceling headphones reduce the multiple noises common to emergency situations but still allow the person to hear. Sunglasses reduce the effect of flashing, strobe and LED lights, all of which may be distressing to people with autism.

The liquid bubbler, push pop fidgets, stress balls, and plush dogs are all meant to reduce anxiety; officers receive guidance as to what item to offer in various situations.

French, who became Streetsboro’s school resource officer in August 2022, said a family friendship gave him the idea.

“We [French and his wife, who is a school administrator] have good friends who have a child with autism, so that’s up close and personal,” he said. “As a police officer, I understand how other officers could deal with someone with autism and not know what was going on.”

French said he hit the internet to locate resources and found the Hussman Institute, which told him that it was willing to donate the kits to SPD. City council sealed the deal by accepting the donation on Nov. 14.

“It can’t do anything but help anybody with communication difficulties,” Streetsboro Police Chief Tricia Wain said. “If they happen to run into somebody who’s deaf, they can use the dry erase boards to communicate back and forth.”

John Vennetti, superintendent of the Portage County Board of Developmental Disabilities, said he was overjoyed by French’s initiative.

“That’s incredible that he himself did that. I don’t see how it could hurt. If it’s one adult, one kid that it helps them interact with because of that, they’ve already won,” Vennetti said. “Sometimes kids and adults with autism aren’t able to express themselves verbally, but they might be able to do it with these cards that they can point to or look at and see.”

Cost to the City of Streetsboro: nothing. Value: priceless.

Any other area police departments interested in receiving autism kits can contact the Hussman Institute for Autism.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.