Union woman builds picture bridge to reduce fear, anxiety

Resource book aids first responders, educators with nonverbal, autism

Mon, 04/30/2018 - 8:15pm

    HOPE – The first 200 interactive communications books are becoming commonplace in the vehicles of Knox County responder agencies, as well as schools. The results are being noted, and it’s all due to one woman.

    Union’s Michele Robinson started putting binders together two years ago. Ever since a behavioral therapist in Miami suffered the bullets of law enforcement while trying to communicate for an autistic adult, Robinson has been accumulating alternative communication ideas. Her primary idea allows pictures to tell the story. Prior to a medical assessment of an autistic adult or child, for example, an EMT might show pictures of a stretcher, an ambulance, and then a blood pressure cuff.

    “For whatever reason, one day, I started thinking ‘what can I do?’” she said during a Sensory-Friendly open house, April 28, at the Hope Fire Station. “I had an 8-year-old grandson who’s nonverbal, with autism. He would have no way to communicate with anybody if there was ever an emergency.”

    Though he can’t talk, Robinson’s grandson can point to those letters of the alphabet that spell his name.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in April that the number of children diagnosed with autism is one in 59, as opposed to the previous statistic of one in 68. Resources such as Robinson’s picture-based books are gaining attention.  

    According to the CDC: “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability  that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less.”

    Union was the first town to receive the training that accompanies that resource, according to Robinson. A couple of weeks later, the book came in handy for just the right situation. After, they reported back to her with excitement.

    “Oh my God, we knew what we were doing,” she repeated. “We knew to step back and not rush the person.”

    Along with pictures of common sights, concepts, and medical equipment, the book also has examples of various cartoon characters that young people may recognize. According to Robinson, this addition came from an incident in which an officer worked to physically detain an agitated autistic child who kept running off.

    With no way to get away, the child repeated, “Let me go, Let me go” nonstop for several minutes.

    The officer started listing cartoons and happened to mention ‘Angry Birds.’ The child immediately stopped his repetition and began talking normally. The officer had found a relate-able topic in which to converse.

    In response to a letter about her project, various businesses and organizations donated. Adventure Advertising, in Rockport, covered the cost of printing and contributed the first 200 copies, leaving Robinson only with the task of stocking up on empty binders and clipboards from Dollar Tree. 

    Those first 200 will go to Knox County agencies, as well as to Waldoboro and Lincolnville.

    “Once I get this area done, I’m going to try to move to the next county,” she said.

    For the next round of printing, Adventure Advertising will charge $20 per book for fundraising efforts.

    Along with those copies distributed to municipal agencies, a woman in Bangor purchased the book as a gift to an autistic child, and several more copies have left the state with interested individuals.

    Robinson’s overall goal for her grandson and others is to minimize the trauma and sensory overload that comes with unexpected situations. Therefore, Robinson also coordinates twice per year Sensory-Friendly Open Houses at local fire departments. Last week, she stood by as Hope Fire Chief Clarence Keller donned his full firefighter uniform for a young child. No lights flashed. No sirens wailed. No people screamed.

    In the calm environment, the child learned that there was a friendly person behind the mask.

    After an open house in South Thomaston last year, a mother contacted her regarding the personal experience of her son.

    The child was using a fire truck as a drive-thru window, taking orders and humoring everyone in the process, Robinson said. But it was the ambulance orientation that left its mark.

    “North East Ambulance was amazing,” she said. “They put him on the stretcher, they strapped him in. They did a bunch of stuff and put a blood pressure cuff on him.”

    Days later, the child ended up really sick and was transported to Maine Medical Center in an ambulance. His mother contacted Robinson to say that had it not been for the open house and the interaction that he’d had with the personnel there, the transport would have resulted in a different outcome.


    Related stories:

    South Thomaston firefighters open doors to familiarize special people about what they do and why

    Knox RCC: On the front line with every emergency

    Waldo County Search and Rescue: A dedicated effort to find people, clues, evidence

    Reach Sarah Thompson at news@penbaypilot.com