Carter Kits help first responders take better care of patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder

North Country Community Mental Health and Northern Lakes Community Mental Health provide Carter Kits to first responders. The kits contain sensory items that help distract children with Autism Spectrum Disorder from the stress of being involved in an emergency situation.
Carter Kits
During an emergency situation like a fire or car accident, keeping a level head can be difficult, especially when a parent and children are involved. In the event of an emergency involving children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) present, first responders may not always have the skills or knowledge to prevent a situation from escalating further. 

In response, North Country Community Mental Health (North Country CMH) and Northern Lakes Community Mental Health (Northern Lakes CMH) are taking great strides in providing training to first responders and emergency medical services (EMS) to ensure that the they can provide the best care to not only children with ASD, but to all children and adults with neurodivergence or sensory issues.

North Country CMH and Northern Lakes CMH are partnered with Carter Kits, a Frankenmuth-based organization providing EMS supplies designed for children with ASD. Brandon Hausbeck, co-founder and president of Carter Kits, explains that Carter Kits are named after Carter, the son of the organization’s vice president, Justin Severs, who expressed concerns about Carter being in an emergency situation without his parents there to take care of him. 

“Together, we came up with Carter Kits and brought aboard Dr. Ellen Preen, a clinical neuropsychologist who helped us build the kits and develop the training curriculum,” Hausbeck says.

The kits contain various sensory items to help relieve the physical stress an emergency situation can bring, such as noise canceling ear muffs, a weighted blanket, sunglasses, and sensory toys to help distract children from the situation if necessary. Carter Kits replaces these items for little to no cost when a provider doesn’t get an item back after using the kit in the field.
Carter Kit items relieve stress and keep a patient busy.
What started as a small project with Hausbeck and the team donating ten kits to their local providers has turned into a large-scale operation. Six-thousand Carter Kits are in circulation across 34 states and one Canadian province. Hausbeck has plans to get kits in downstate Michigan, both at the county and municipal level, in addition to the 21 northern Michigan counties where they are already available. 

“It has been amazing to see the difference that Carter Kits is making,” says Hausbeck. “To be able to help so many people across the United States means so much to me.”

In addition to the work Carter Kits has been doing with health and safety agencies in northern Michigan, the organization also works with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Samantha Mishra, program coordinator for Michigan’s Emergency Medical Services for Children program (EMSC) explains that their goal is to increase awareness of children’s specific physical and mental health needs when they require emergency assistance.

“Something that we know and is well established is that children will need more emergency services in their lifetime and are particularly vulnerable,” says Mishra. “This is why it’s such a specific effort of the EMS for Children program, as there’s an increased chance of a call.” 
Carter Kit earmuffs soothe patients highly sensitive to loud noise.
Mishra also understands that the needs of children with ASD or other neurodivergent behaviors are going to look different than those of neurotypical children. For example, children with ASD may be unable to make eye contact or effectively communicate with emergency personnel. Due to the stress, they may attempt to run away or lash out toward those trying to provide assistance. 

This is where Carter Kits come in handy for first responders. Sunglasses can block out the flashing lights on a police car or ambulance. Earmuffs can muffle a loud siren. Sensory and fidgets toys can provide positive stimuli or distraction.

“The collaboration between EMSC and Carter Kits, is really making a difference in the communities they’re serving,” says Mishra.

A unique aspect, Carter Kits provides free training with their distribution. Designed to bring various emergency service teams together, it ensures that training can be replicated in each first-response department individually. 

North Country CMH Director of Children and Family Services Christine Dillon facilitates these train-the-trainer sessions and emphasizes the importance of communication between emergency personnel and the parents or caretakers of neurodivergent children and adults.

“We always talk about the importance of first responders talking to parents or caregivers,” Dillon says. “That rapport is so important for people on the spectrum. It can be very calming if someone they already know is able to respond.”

Dillon says that the response to the training has been overwhelmingly positive. First responders receiving the training feel much more confident going into emergency situations when individuals with ASD are involved. 

“Being able to understand the ‘Why?’ is helpful,” she says. “We have done training with our local first responders throughout our six counties, and we’re continuing to do that training, including training in our local schools. I’m really happy about the opportunity to continue that training.” 
Carter Kits help first responders care for children with autism.
The train-the-trainer model has allowed for Carter Kits training to be shared with even more emergency response teams. Stacey Kaminski, operation manager for Northern Lakes CMH crisis services, explains that Carter Kits have made their way to several other agencies in addition to emergency response services — schools, courthouses, and the local Department of Health and Human Services office. 

“We have tried to get them out where we can. If there is anyone else in our counties that we serve [that wants them], they would just need to reach out,” Kaminski says. “Not understanding the symptoms can escalate a situation. Recognizing the symptoms and having these tools to de-escalate or prevent escalation is what helps.”

Carter Kits and the associated training aims to assist first responders and others to recognize signs of autism in children and ensure that, when they do need help, they’re able to provide assistance adequately. Methods of approaching neurodivergent individuals during emergency situations are a primary focus of the Carter Kit training program.  

“The important thing is the approach if someone is in distress,” says Kaminski. “They may have some of the unusual behaviors, may not be able to make eye contact or respond to questions. Those are important things for first responders to know and understand when they’re approaching someone on the spectrum in distress.”

Carter Kits have not only helped first responders in emergency situations, they have also pointed out gaps in training and education among emergency response staff. EMS director for Boyne City Brenda Willson says that even though emergency staff may have the best of intentions, not understanding the necessary signs of children with ASD in distress can hurt more than help.

“We need to be susceptible and listen,” says Willson. “I’ve made mistakes in my career, and when people tell me, I can change them.” 

Paramedic and EMS director Brenda Willson, left, talks Carter Kits with EMT Jamie Dean, right
As the parent of a special needs child, Willson believes that care and understanding is just as important as medical treatment in her line of work. Carter Kits, while used as a tool to ensure the health and safety of children in emergency situations, also show those children that emergency staff isn’t scary — that they truly care about their wellbeing.

“The kits have come in handy more times than I can count,” Willson says. “It’s all about patient comfort. We’re able to provide them some kind of break from the chaos that’s going on in our truck. It’s the simplest of things, but it makes the biggest difference.”

With Carter Kits available to first responders, the safety of neurodivergent children and children with ASD can be achieved a bit more easily. But training and educating first responders is just as — if not more — important, as it also battles stigmas and stereotypes that individuals may have about these children. With Carter Kits making the training as accessible as possible, hopefully the Kits will make their way to the rest of Michigan very soon.

“Some people need to be communicated with differently,” Mishra concludes. “If we can take that pause and use that training, we can deliver the best quality care to any patient.”

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

Photos by John Russell.

The MI Mental Health series highlights the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from the Community Mental Health Association of MichiganCenter for Health and Research TransformationGenesee Health SystemMental Health Foundation of West MichiganNorth Country CMHNorthern Lakes CMH AuthorityOnPointSanilac County CMHSt. Clair County CMHSummit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.
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