Bringing Carter Kits to West Hartford was a project led by Jamie Kaminski, a current member of the Parent Leadership Training Institute class.
By Ronni Newton
Jamie Kaminski is enrolled in the Parent Leadership Training Institute – a program in West Hartford that’s coordinated by the Bridge’s Family Resource Center and helps parents become change agents and develop leadership skills – and she is also the mom of a son who has autism.
PLTI participants each complete a project as part of the program, and Kaminski said she got the idea for her project after being involved in a recent fender bender and and then getting a flat tire.
Individuals on the autism spectrum can be subject to experiencing sensory overload. Changes in routine can trigger behaviors that are difficult to control, and being in a car that is pulled over by a police officer – for any reason – is scary to anyone, and can be even more triggering.
Kaminski did some research and learned that Avon Police had recently obtained Carter Kits, which according to the company website “contain clinically proven items known to comfort and appropriately focus children who are on the autism spectrum, as well as many other children who occasionally find themselves overwhelmed or otherwise impacted by traumatic events.”
The kits contain weighted blankets – which help calm and relax – as well as sunglasses and headphones to assist with sensory overload. There are also a variety of fidget and sensory gadgets to use as a distraction, as well as cards that can help children with autism communicate with first responders.
“I wanted to facilitate a positive experience between first responders and children with autism,” Kaminski said.
She reached out to Ofc. David Santora from the West Hartford Police Department’s Community Relations Division about the kits, and he immediately knew who could help the department procure them.
“Ofc. Santora knows that I have a daughter who has autism, and he knows that Risk Management supports safety as well,” said West Hartford Risk Manager Lisa Michaud. “This is very near and dear to my heart.”
The risk management role is not just involved with the town’s insurance, but rather overall support of a safer community, she said.
“Dave [Santora] came to me and asked if town Risk Management could get involved,” Michaud said. “It seemed like a very good and a needed thing, that could help people who get overlooked.” If the budget allows, her department is allotted funds to invest in items that promote safety. During COVID, she said, they spent $60,000 to obtain new AEDs for the town. The three Carter Kits cost just $300.
The cue cards that are in the kit have visuals which can help those who are non-verbal communicate with first responders. “Most with autism need to know a beginning and an end,” Michaud said, and pointing to images on the card can help them respond to questions about what they need and the emotions they are feeling.
“For those with limited language, the ability to ask a kid to point can de-escalate something that’s going in the wrong direction, quickly,” said Kaminski.
“The novelty of a new gadget can be a game-changer,” she added.
“Some of the tools can also help those with epilepsy,” Michaud added.
The West Hartford Police Department already has blue cards that are issued by the DMV, which can help facilitate interaction between drivers with autism and first responders.
Sgt. Amanda Martin, the West Hartford Police Department’s public information officer, said department members undergo yearly in-service training to help raise awareness of how individuals with autism may react – to understand that a child is not really combative or angry but rather is on the spectrum and reacting to a traffic stop or other incident.
Appropriately, the Carter Kits arrived the first week of April – which is Autism Awareness Month. Kaminski and Michaud, who didn’t know each other previously but have forged a close connection, delivered them to Santora and Martin at the West Hartford Police Department.
Martin said they haven’t decided where the kits will be kept, but Santora suggested the supervisors’ vehicles since officers already carry a lot of gear in their cruisers. As long as everyone knows where they are, the kits will be able to be brought out when needed.
“Now that we know what they are, we could branch out to the fire department,” Michaud said, “if funding is available.” Obtaining the kids, she said, “to me seems like a no-brainer.”
West Hartford is destination for families with children who have special needs, Kaminski said, and this is just one more tool. “I hope it raises the consciousness of the village,” she said.
Kaminski’s next project: working with the Special Education PTO (SEPTO) to raise money to purchase seatbelt covers that say “medical information,” an immediate identification that a child in a car may have special needs.
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