ST. CLOUD -- April is Autism Awareness Month, and one local law enforcement agency is launching a new program aimed at easing interactions with people with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.

Last week, the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office handed out 75 sensory bags to officers to keep in their cars and placed them at several county buildings including the courthouse, the administration building, and the license center.

Sheriff Steve Soyka says came up with the idea while reading about a similar program in another department in another state.

Ultimately, it was somebody else's idea and we just kind of went and ran with it. I assigned someone from our community engagement unit to research it, look at what goes into it, and maybe even solicit some donations.

The sheriff’s office worked with the local autism awareness office to decide what items were going to be in the bags. Several other community partners helped donate and stuff the bags with silly putty, fidget spinners, glitter, rubber balls, and other tactile items.

Soyka says the new bags are just one of the many tools at the department’s disposal.

We carry some other things in the squad cars like stuffed animals. We have a group that makes homemade wooden cars, so we have a box of those and several of the deputies carry those, not everybody necessarily. So we have little things like that in the squad cars that we haul around just as distractions for kids if they're involved in some kind of a traumatic event and I think you could use parts of this if you needed to for that.

In addition to special training, the bags are another way deputies can de-escalate situations and distract people who may be non-verbal, confused, or experiencing overstimulation and are often seen as being combative or uncooperative.

Soyka says there are enough remaining supplies to refill and replace the bags as needed for a little while.

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