What firefighters and EMTs should know about SPD

What emergency responders should know about Sensory Processing Disorder

By The VFIS Team on December 9, 2022

What Sensory Processing Disorder is and how you can help provide better care to patients who have it.

Imagine being a child when something traumatic happens. Maybe your caretaker suddenly collapses, your home is on fire or you accidentally sustain a serious injury. However, what comes to your “rescue” are lights so bright that you become debilitated, noises so loud that you become terrified or sensations so unusual that you become agitated. While for many people it would take a jet aircraft landing on your roof to generate that type of reaction—for those with Sensory Processing Disorder, it may only take a single ambulance in their driveway.

To help us learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), we sat down with Saranika Griffith from Lancaster EMS for a recent episode of our Don’t Risk It! podcast series to talk about what emergency responders should know.

Don't Risk It

When Griffith started her EMS career 10 years ago, she noticed that she struggled working with children with special needs. Then, when she had her own son with autism, it became more apparent to her that responders as a whole aren’t generally prepared for scenarios involving patients with special needs.

For example, while you may be all too familiar to the bright lights, sirens and other stimulating experiences that accompany an emergency call, it’s important to recognize that the majority of the public is not. And for those with special needs, including SPD, these stimuli could have serious impacts.

What exactly is SPD and who is at risk?

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, SPD is condition that impacts how your brain processes sensory information. This includes what you see, hear, smell, taste or touch—and typically means that you’re considered overly-sensitive to at least one of these stimuli.

Right now, SPD isn’t recognized as its own official medical diagnosis due to conflicting views and needs for more research. Currently, some doctors believe you can experience SPD without having another disorder, while others believe that SPD is a symptom of other disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder or anxiety.

While this might be the first time you’re hearing about SPD—it’s not particularly uncommon. In fact, a study by the University of California San Francisco estimates that SPD affects 5 to 16% of school-aged children. However, the American Academy of Family Physicians explains that even though it’s more common in children, people can have SPD at any age.

What are sensory bags, how can they help patients with SPD + what’s in them?

With the specific challenge of overstimulated senses in mind, Griffith used her first-hand experiences with her son and her own money to come up with a bag full of possible solutions to help her EMS patients cope with SPD and began bringing the bag with her on every call. Bags like these are referred to as “sensory bags” and they contain a variety of items that people can use to help stimulate or soothe various senses.

What started as an important mission for one EMS provider (and parent) quickly turned into an agency-wide program after leadership at her agency saw how Griffith’s bag could successfully help deescalate situations with certain patients.

This led Lancaster EMS to partner with the Schreiber Center for Pediatric Development which is an organization located in their local response area that provides family-centered education and therapy programs. With a grant provided by the Schreiber Center, Griffith and their therapists worked together to develop sensory bags that patients can use during all stages of an EMS call and keep after each call's end.

The bags currently include spike balls, sunglasses, noise-canceling headphones (made from 100% plastic so that they can be used during various medical scans), chew necklaces and fidget toys, as well as white boards that allow patients to use written communication when preferred.

What steps are needed to help my agency better serve people with special needs?

Simply putting together sensory bags won’t make them effective if your team doesn’t understand how and when to apply them—that’s why training is vital when it comes to complex issues such as these. For example, Griffith built a training program dedicated to helping EMS personnel better care for patients with special needs that is approved across the state of Pennsylvania.

Culture is another challenge that some agencies will face, says Griffith. However, she’s found that when providers give these techniques a chance (like the bags), they’ll often see the benefits quickly when the right scenario arises. And for those who are resistant to implementing programs like these, she encourages everyone to be empathetic and imagine if they were the family member of someone with special needs.

“Try to take a step back before you judge the program and think about it from the perspective of being a parent. How would you feel if your child had an issue and you called 911 because something was wrong—and the provider showed up and had no idea how to interact with your child?... It would break your heart,” Griffith shared.

If your agency is interested in replicating this program, we encourage you to find a local expert who can help train your team on best practices and techniques for providing care to patients with special needs.

Together, we can help ensure that we’re able to serve and protect all members of our communities. You can listen to this entire Don’t Risk It! podcast episode or others on a wide variety of topics for emergency responders at dontriskit.libsyn.com and on all major podcast platforms. LISTEN NOW>>>

The VFIS Team

VFIS is the largest provider of insurance, education and consulting services for fire departments, ambulance and rescue squads and 911 centers in North America, having pioneered the first tailored insurance package for this industry in 1969.


The information contained in this blog post is intended for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace expert advice in connection with the topics presented. Glatfelter specifically disclaims any liability for any act or omission by any person or entity in connection with the preparation, use or implementation of plans, principles, concepts or information contained in this publication.

Glatfelter does not make any representation or warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the results obtained by the use, adherence or implementation of the material contained in this publication. The implementation of the plans, principles, concepts or materials contained in this publication is not a guarantee that you will achieve a certain desired result. It is strongly recommended that you consult with a professional advisor, architect or other expert prior to the implementation of plans, principles, concepts or materials contained in this publication.

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