STONINGTON — When local emergency response agencies open their doors to the public on Saturday morning, there will be no running engines, no emergency lights in use, and no sirens.
It's all by design.
The town's Department of Human Services, in partnership with the police and other first responders, will host the town's third annual Sensory-Friendly Day from 10 a.m. to noon. It's part of a monthlong effort by the town to promote awareness of autism and other sensory processing disorders, according to Human Services Director Leanne Theodore.
"Over the past five years, we have slowly been expanding our efforts during the month of April, and this is a program that has provided great benefit to both families and first responders," Theodore said. "It's a chance to show we are embracing those impacted by autism, and to let families of those affected by autism or sensory processing disorder meet emergency responders in a more comforting, non-emergency atmosphere."
Saturday's event will mimic other Touch-A-Truck programs held throughout the year. The difference, Theodore explained, is that there will be very little sound and no bright lights, eliminating triggers that can induce a panic attack.
The concept was developed a few years ago after a speaker with the Autism Law Enforcement Coalition held a regional training session. Theodore said many first responders, many of whom are volunteers, found the information helpful and have jumped at the chance to be involved.
Theresa Hersh, assistant chief of the Stonington Borough Fire Department, said local fire and ambulance volunteers have learned a lot from the families of those with autism.
"For some of our volunteers, this event proved to be their first real chance to talk with those impacted directly," said Hersh, who is also the public information officer for Stonington Ambulance and the Quiambaug Fire Department.
Hersh said the volunteers have also been able to connect people who have the sensory conditions, and show them that they are there to help. "The goal is that, when there is a reason and we do come, they are familiar with us and hopefully won't be so afraid in that moment," she said.
Police Lt. Bryan Scnheider said the event is also win-win for the public and the town's officers. "Anytime we can engage with the public in a non-emergency situation, it lets us learn about their needs and allows us to provide insight on programs or services that they may not be aware are available," he said.
Officers receive regular training in how to respond to situations involving people who are on the autism spectrum. The department, through Capt. Todd Olson, was pivotal in developing a townwide Citizens with Autism Safety System, which provides critical information to first responders who are called to incidents involving people with autism or other disorders.
Schneider said Wednesday that the system, which is 100 percent volunteer with information available only to first responders, has been rolled out slowly. It gives residents a chance to communicate important attributes of those with special needs — information that could help in fires, missing person cases, or other high-stress incidents.
Theodore and Schneider said anyone interested in the CASS system can learn more and even sign up for it at Saturday's event, or contact Stonington Human Services at 860-535-5015.
As part of Autism Awareness month, a fundraiser was held at the Malted Barley in Westerly on April 2 that raised $4,000 for the human services department. The money will be used for educational programs, speakers, and further development of the CASS database. The town also partnered with the Stonington VFW, which provided promotional signs for autism awareness near the Westerly-Pawcatuck bridge and Donahue Park, and has worked with Mystic Luxury Cinemas to offer a sensory-friendly showing — the first was held on April 13.
The sensory-friendly showing allows families to see movies with the lights on, the sound turned down, and optional ear muffs, Theodore said. The theater has chosen to continue the program on a more regular basis and will begin hosting a sensory-friendly showing on the third Saturday of every month at 9:30 a.m.
"Our hope is these efforts will show solidarity and support for those with these conditions and their families," Theodore said.