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Sensory bags help Ind. EMS providers care for autistic patients

Ben’s Blue Bags founder Matthew Kodicek said they are also useful for small children and anyone else who may struggle to communicate with first responders


Photo/Ben’s Blue Bags

Kirsten Adair
Pharos-Tribune, Logansport

CASS COUNTY, Ind. — When Cass County Emergency Medical Technician Mackenzie Houston recently needed to calm two young children in a car accident, she had to improvise. Houston relied on a small pin light to distract the kids so she could check them for injuries.

“I was shining it, moving it around so they would watch that while I touched them so they weren’t getting nervous and screaming,” Houston said.

Thanks to new training and the purchase of five Ben’s Blue Bags this week, Cass County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) employees no longer have to improvise ways to comfort and distract their patients.

Ben’s Blue Bags are sensory bags filled with items like fidget spinners, squeeze balls, dry erase boards, markers, rubber worms, Rubik’s cubes, and earmuffs.

“It will be a lot more useful for them to have all these toys to play with,” Houston said. “Kids love to play with toys. Everything that’s on the ambulance could possibly hurt them, so we don’t really have things for them to touch.”



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Houston said she tried using stuffed animals to calm patients in the past, but that did not work because the stuffed animals were not interactive enough to hold her patients’ focus.

The bags were created to help people with autism during emergency situations, but Ben’s Blue Bags founder Matthew Kodicek said they are also useful for small children and anyone else, including adults, who might struggle to communicate with first responders.

“Especially when we’re touching mom and dad, (kids) get scared. They get nervous,” Houston said. “I think the bags will help a lot, not just with autistic kids, but also with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and kids in general.”

Kodicek, a lieutenant at Crown Point Fire Rescue and lead instructor at Franciscan Health Crown Point, started Ben’s Blue Bags in December 2019 after reading about fire stations in Ohio that use sensory bags.

“I thought it was a really cool idea,” Kodicek said. “With my son being autistic, I was like, ‘This would go really well in Crown Point.’”

Kodicek said his son was the main inspiration behind the program. He named the sensory bags after his son, Ben, and made them blue because that is Ben’s favorite color.

He said there is high demand for sensory bags from first responders. Departments across northwest Indiana as well as Indianapolis, Pike Township, Avon, and Clarksville use Ben’s Blue Bags.

While the bags have been popular across the state, Kodicek said the factor that makes Ben’s Blue Bags stand out against other sensory bags is the training that accompanies them. He travels to each department to teach a class that explains autism and how the items in each bag can be used to help patients.

“Giving them an hour and a half presentation of the ‘why’ and what to look for is what makes Ben’s Blue Bags something special,” he said. “Nobody else in this area has been doing that.”

Kodicek said knowing how to use the tools inside the bags also helps patients. When first responders are aware of all the items in the bag and know how to utilize each of those items, the patients have a better experience.

“They tend to be calmer,” he said. “It gives them something to focus on, and it makes for an overall better call.”

Cass County EMS Director Mikel Fort said autism training is required by the state but typically is not as in-depth as the training provided by Kodicek. He said it is rare to find a program with the depth of Ben’s Blue Bags training that caters to EMS departments.

“It’s unheard of across the state to have training like this,” he said. “The fact that (Kodicek) was able to create it from scratch, create the concept, and bring it to us is a huge benefit for all of us.”

Fort said the department has responded to many situations where Ben’s Blue Bags and training would have been helpful. Cass County EMS received five Ben’s Blue Bags. Three of the bags will be used by the EMS department, and the remaining two bags will be used by the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.

“The bags are nice, and it’s another tool for us,” Fort said. “We’re built on tools. ... Even if someone laughs about a fidget spinner, if that’s enough to distract somebody to find a proper blood pressure or do a proper assessment, it’s another tool that we can use.”

Kodicek presented the training to Cass County EMS on Monday morning. He discussed strategies to provide better care for people with autism and gave tips to help prevent meltdowns caused by overstimulation.

“If one person gets on scene first and they can calm that situation down, we don’t need an ambulance,” Kodicek said. “That means that ambulance can be available for life-threatening emergencies. (The class has) been a really good community risk reduction.”

He also taught the “ABC’s” of autism: awareness, basics, calmness, and safety. He recommended that EMTs and paramedics let patients keep an item from the bag if the item keeps the patient calm, and he provided links to inexpensive replacements.

Cass County EMS learned that a rolled blanket wrapped around a patient can be used to lead them in a specific direction without touching them. If a patient is unable to speak or hear, first responders can use the whiteboard and markers to ask them their name or where they feel pain. A patient who is overwhelmed by noise can use the headphones provided in the bag to stay calm.

By the end of the training, Cass County EMS employees learned that children with autism often have delayed speech, prefer to play alone, and are fascinated by water and spinning objects. They also learned not to stop repetitive comfort noises or movements, also known as stimming behaviors, if they are not harmful.

“I feel like it was really beneficial,” Cass County EMT Skyler Boruff said. “I grew up with a lot of people around me who were autistic. It was definitely insightful to see more in-depth how we can better react as first responders coming to the scene.”

Casey Gustin, Cass County EMS paramedic and C shift supervisor, also thought the training was helpful. He said it was nice to have in-person training rather than an online class, and he thinks that will make it easier to catch up EMS employees who were not able to attend.

“We can share that and help diffuse and not further escalate any incidents,” Gustin said. “I see when it would have been beneficial on a lot of calls.”

Kodicek said the training sessions typically receive positive responses. He said it is important to make people feel comfortable, and many first responders in his classes either know someone who has autism or can think of a time when the training and Ben’s Blue Bags would have improved a patient’s care.

“The cool part is how many people support this,” Kodicek said. “I never realized how much autism affects so many families. Every time I come across a class, it’s like someone has a brother, a niece, a nephew, or a grandson. So many people have been so supportive of this program because it’s about helping these patients when they have a hard time.”


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