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Foundation donates autism sensory bags to local first responders

Grayson Davidson, 7, gave a short presentation of what each sensory sack contains. (Emily Thurlow)

GREAT BARRINGTON — Sheffield police officers and Southern Berkshire Ambulance Squad EMTs and paramedics have added some new equipment to their emergency response kits.
On Monday, March 23, the two local entities each received four sensory bags designed to help on emergency response calls that involve people or patients with autism.
The bags were donated to Sheffield Police and the squad by Erik Davidson, a paramedic and public education coordinator for Northfield EMS, and his wife, Jo-Ann Davidson, a special education teacher at Streiber Elementary School in Chicopee.
Together, the Davidsons are in the process of formalizing the 501c3 nonprofit status for their autism awareness organization, Start ‘Em Early Foundation.
“The bags can be used to provide comfort to a person or patient with autism,” said Erik Davidson. “They can either be given to an autistic patient or a family member of the patient to provide a sense of calm.”
Prior to his time at Northfield EMS, Erik worked for County Ambulance Service in Pittsfield as well as Southern Berkshire Ambulance Squad alongside Supervisor and Paramedic Jeremy Van Deusen.
Through that time, Erik says he learned a lot from Van Deusen and his wife, Crystal, who also previously worked at Southern Berkshire, about autism awareness. In addition to having an autistic son, Crystal also started educational programming on autism awareness.
Last year, Erik says he stumbled upon an article from online resource EMS1.com about Clearcreek Township Fire Department in Ohio that launched a similar initiative with the sensory bags and wanted to offer the same toolkits throughout western Massachusetts.
More recently, the Davidsons also received a diagnosis that their 11-year-old daughter, Janelle, was also on the spectrum.
Using her knowledge of what works in the classroom as well as what works with her daughter, Jo-Ann compiled a list of items that could be assembled in the bag. Though the couple is not accepting any monetary donations until the nonprofit status has been made official, they have received material donations to fill the bags as well as the bags themselves.
Inside each of the Thirty-One brand bags are noise canceling headphones, a coloring book, a whiteboard and markers that provide an option for those that are nonverbal, “feeling wheels” to indicate emotions, and other calming toys like bubbles, a stress ball, a paddleball, a mini flute, a necklace, a fidget spinner, Play-Doh and a Rubik’s Cube.
“I find the fidget spinners very satisfactory,” said 7-year-old Grayson Davidson, the couple’s other daughter, as she gave a presentation to the recipients on Monday.
The bags also contain weighted stuffed animals that were provided through a partnership with the occupational therapy program at Springfield College.
Jo-Ann estimates that the cost of each bag runs between $30 and $40.
In the months to come, Erik anticipates being able to provide educational programming to go along with the sensory bags with the help of Crystal Van Deusen.
“These will be very handy for us,” said Sheffield Police Chief Eric Munson of the donation.
In addition to Sheffield Police and Southern Berkshire, the Davidsons have provided a number of sensory bags to other first responders in the area, including three to Easthampton Fire Department, two to Northfield EMS, one to Becket Ambulance, one to Shelburne Falls Fire Department and two to Southwick Fire Department. There’s also a backlog to provide additional bags to other departments, said Erik.
“It can be scary when we show up in our uniforms for some of our psyche or special needs patients,” said Van Deusen. “These will provide people with something to play with or distract them from the overstimulation – people calm down when they can play.”
Those interested in helping to purchase the materials needed for the sensory bags can visit the foundation’s wishlist on Amazon at https://amzn.to/33MVxqN

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