MUSKEGON, Mich. — As the mother of a child with severe autism, Amber Horton sees firsthand the challenges that kids with sensory issues face in their everyday lives.

Everywhere the Muskegon mom goes — from the mall, to the grocery store, to the hospital — she sees ways that her son, Max, could potentially get overstimulated by the sights and sounds, leading to a sensory meltdown.

“You start seeing a need for awareness and the education about the autism spectrum everywhere in the public,” Horton told MLive.

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So as an emergency medical technician (EMT), it was only natural for Horton to look for ways to make her own line of work better for kids like Max.

That’s what led the mother to develop “sensory kits,” providing tools for patients with autism to cope with the flashing lights and sirens during an ambulance ride.

“When I considered how overwhelming an ambulance ride could be for a person with sensory processing issues, it was important for me to find a way to improve that experience,” she said.

The kits include a weighted blanket, noise-canceling ear muffs, sunglasses to dim bright lights and communication tools for kids to describe their pain to first responders.

Horton, a Pro Med EMT, has since installed sensory kits in every Pro Med ambulance, allowing paramedics to help every patient with autism in Muskegon County to deal with the stress of an ambulance ride.

Horton came up with the idea a few years ago and, after receiving a $700 grant from the Michigan Community Service Commission, decided to pursue it. The grant allowed her to build 20 sensory kits and outfit all 17 Pro Med ambulances.

The mother said she hand-picked each item that went into the kits, after conducting months of research. She said Max, 5, was her “guinea pig” to choose what should go into the sensory kits.

“I was seeing what Max liked, what he didn’t like,” Horton said. “I’d be at Home Depot every day, looking at knobs and little pipes and anything that I could use, and then I’d be in Walmart feeling all of the material just to make sure it was the right kind of material, because they’re very sensitive.”

Horton said the kits are essential not only to help patients feel more comfortable, but also to keep them from potentially hurting themselves.

When people with autism experience a sensory meltdown, they go into “full-on panic mode,” Horton said. “They will literally break their own body to get out of it. They don’t know what they’re doing, they just want to be away from the situation, and it causes them to have medical emergencies. And they can die.

“I want to avoid that,” she said.

Along with supplying ambulances with the sensory kits, she also is working to educate her colleagues about the autism spectrum and what it may look like in patients.

“It’s important because a lot of times, autistic individuals get mistaken for people on drugs, or you know it’s abnormal behavior,” Horton said.

Horton is conducting training with each and every Pro Med EMT to teach them how to use the sensory kits and how to deal with a patient experiencing sensory issues.

“We just don’t have a proper curriculum for it, and I’m trying to change that,” she said. “I needed to get first responders trained, I need to get fire departments trained, police need training.”

And for Pro Med personnel, the training was a welcome opportunity for paramedics to learn how to help patients with autism.

“Until now, we’ve not been able to identify resources for our medics on helping pediatric patients who need ambulance transport,” said Chad Crook, operations manager for Pro Med, in a prepared statement.

“As the need becomes more prevalent, we want to educate our providers how easy it is to over-stimulate patients with autism and how to help ease the experience for both provider and patient.”

In Muskegon, there are 11,000 pediatric emergency room visits and 2,000 pediatric ambulance calls each year, according to Pro Med officials. An estimated 6 percent of the population has a sensory processing disorder, which means 780 kids could potentially be serviced by the kits.

Horton said her next step is to take her idea to emergency rooms and hospitals in Muskegon County to advocate for sensory kits to be available for patients. She said she plans to apply for more grants to get the funding she needs to develop additional kits.

“I want (patients with autism) to have a chance to communicate, to feel comfortable,” she said. “I want them to not be scared of first responders. So, I’m hoping to help with that.”

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