CROWN POINT — A few months ago, Matt Kodicek saw a Facebook post about firefighter paramedic Eric Henry in Springboro, Ohio.
The Clearcreek Fire District firefighter brought sensory bags to the department to help respond to calls where there are children who have autism, a cause close to Henry because his sister is on the spectrum.
When Kodicek saw the post, he thought of his son, Ben, who also is on the spectrum.
Once he saw Henry's post, he knew he wanted to bring something similar to Crown Point Fire Rescue — thus, Ben's Blue Bags was born.
The sensory bags are named after 5-year-old Ben, whose favorite color is blue. Each bag includes headphones, a dry erase board with a feelings chart, fidget spinners and various sensory toys.
"I've had car accidents where a parent might be involved and the parent is the driver, and they need to be checked out and the child is fine," he said.
"I've had a couple calls in the last year where I've had a child that is autistic and needed something that maybe calmed them down or helped them through it because you're taking their caregiver away to treat them."
Each kit costs around $85 to put together, but Crown Point Fire Rescue didn't have to pay for its four bags because an anonymous donor gave the department the bags.
The kits, he said, not only help children on the spectrum, but can help with adults on the spectrum and children patients in general.
While first responders usually have stuffed animals on the ambulance to help comfort children, Kodicek said they don't always work for everyone.
"It's (a stuffed animal) not always going to calm them down ... or they're just going to toss it," Kodicek said. "Sometimes it's this distraction of a fidget spinner or just squeezing this or even the marble thing just back and forth is enough to calm them down."
Not only does the bag help calm children down, it allows emergency medical technicians to provide better services, he said.
"We can provide better patient care because we're not so focused on just calming them down," he said.
As a parent, it brings him comfort knowing first responders are adapting their care and becoming aware of patients with autism.
"Until you have a child, or relative or somebody who has it, you really don't understand what it is," he said. "Everyone in EMS had to do ... an autism in-service about a year ago, and they just kind of talked about autism but until you really understand what's going on with it, until you live it, you don't really understand it."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 59 children are on the autism spectrum.
"It seems like everyone I talked to — my friends and co-workers in the other agencies — have a child in their area that seems to have autism that they're called for," Kodicek said.
Ben's Blue Bags will soon be available to other area departments, too. Before putting the kits on the ambulance, Kodicek had to present the kit to EMS Director Rob Dowling. Dowling told Kodicek Franciscan Health had leftover grant money, which it would use to provide kits for other ambulances in the Franciscan network.
Kodicek said he has sent emails out to Valparaiso, Schererville, St. John, Cedar Lake, Lowell and Newton County agencies to pique their interest.
"Crown Point's leading the way. This is brand new (to) Lake County," Crown Point Fire Chief Dave Crane said. "We're the first service to have this type of stuff on our ambulances."