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Today's Family Magazine

Bridging the gap for people with special needs

Special icon cards that first responders can use when they encounter a person with special needs during an emergency.

By Dan Miller

After learning that first responders are rarely trained on how to communicate with children with special needs, Jenna Newman knew she needed to change that.   The Mentor stay-at-home mother of three had a very personal reason to do so.  Her son, Tommy, is autistic and nonverbal.  

“Autism never goes away.   And as my son got older and stronger I began to fear for his life.  I realized that in an emergency he needed to be able to communicate with first responders as much as they needed to be able to communicate with him.  That’s when I started the STICKS program.”

STICKS, which was named after Tommy’s obsession with sticks, is also an acronym for Super hero first responders Teaching safety Is Critical for Kids with Special needs.  In 2018 when Tommy was 6 years old, Newman reached out to the Mentor Fire Department about her idea and they jumped on board immediately.  Shortly after that, the Willoughby and Madison fire departments joined in as well. The Madison Police Department is also now active with the program.

The program is free for families to attend and each session lasts about 30-45 minutes.  The programs have been held at the Mentor Public Library main branch, at the Madison fire and police stations and at the Willoughby fire station.  Firefighters/police conduct the program during their off time.  There is no age limit and siblings are encouraged to attend as well. Parents/guardians must stay for the entire session. 

During the sessions, firefighters and officers read a short story written by Newman.  These “social” stories are quick and to the point, and also include lots of repetition to facilitate learning.  After that, there is a hands-on activity (like stop, drop and roll) that is presented in a way that the participants can understand.  Sessions have included: 

  • All about firefighters
  • Inside an ambulance
  • The fire drill
  • All about police
  • Electrical outlets are dangerous
  • Water safety
  • Stranger danger 
  • More!

After the story and activity, the participants hang out with the firefighters and police officers who are usually in their full gear to help further familiarize them with the children with special needs. 

“The first responders that do the program have learned that it’s not a typical school program.  They see lots of running around the room, stimming [hand flapping, rocking, spinning, etc.], sometimes lots of yelling, and even some crying.  We let the kids do it and make no judgments.  My son initially hated the program but now he asks to go, and sits, listens and participates.  He made three amazing friends –– Fireman Jerry from Mentor, and Firemen Ricky and Mark from Willoughby,” says Newman.

In addition to the in-person sessions, Newman has developed special icon cards that first responders can use when they encounter a person with special needs during an emergency.  The icon cards are categorized by people, body parts, commands, objects and medical supplies, and have proven to be incredibly helpful with communication.

In March 2021, Newman expanded her efforts by starting a nonprofit called Heroes Helping Those with Special Needs.  In addition to the STICKS program, the organization also:

  • Provides sensory bags to fire and police departments locally and nationwide.  Each bag includes headphones, sunglasses, dry erase board & marker, five fidget toys, three social stories and an “I need choice board” with all items as pictures that a child can point to
  • Teamed up with AATAP, an autism organization, to provide FREE autism training to first responders.  (Locally, over 150 first responders in northeast Ohio have received this training.)
  • Holds family-friendly special needs events throughout the year.

For more information or to become a business sponsor of the program, visit their Facebook page (Heroes Helping Those with Special Needs) or email Jenna Newman at [email protected].