Among those in attendance Saturday at McDonald’s were (front row, from left) Kristina Martinez, Elevate the Sectrum president; Clemy Garza, McDonal’s co-owner; Kay Provott (Jobs for America’s Graduates-NM); and Diana Stone (ETS). Behind them are several first responders, plus Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull (second from left in back), Rio Rancho Public Schools Executive Director of Safety and Security Sal Maniaci, to Hull’s left; and recently re-elected state Rep. Jason Harper. (Gary Herron photo)

The Garza-owned McDonald’s, in collaboration with Elevate the Spectrum, UNM Center for Development and Disability and Jobs for America’s Graduates, presented 200 HERO bags to Rio Rancho Public Schools, Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office and Sandoval County Fire Department on Saturday at the eatery on NM 528 in Rio Rancho.

Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull and Sandoval County Commissioner Dave Heil were also on hand.

HERO bags were created in 2021 by Tarra Main, a board member with Elevate the Spectrum. The bags consist of essential items that help assist first responders if they encounter autistic individuals who may become overstimulated in emergency situations. Contents include sunglasses to reduce overstimulation caused by flashing lights, earphones, fidget tools and communication boards for autistic individuals.

HERO bags are also useful during a mental health crisis of a non-autistic individual, when de-escalation is essential. The average number of emergency department encounters is 70 percent higher for 15- to 18-year-olds with autism and twice as high for adults, compared to those who are not on the spectrum.

“Autistic individuals have a higher rate of encounters with first responders than the general population and may become over stimulated and express aggressive behaviors or an inability to communicate, which may be perceived as a threat by law enforcement or emergency personnel,” said Kristina Martinez, president of Elevate the Spectrum. “HERO bags help autistic individuals regulate their emotions and communicate, and we are hoping to get additional training for first responders and law enforcement on how to identify these individuals.”

“As a mother of an autistic son, I know first-hand how imperative it is to educate and arm our schools, emergency personnel and law enforcement with the tools to assist autistic individuals or those in crisis during an emergency situation, when they can easily become overstimulated and fearful,” said McDonald’s owner/operator Clementina “Clemy” Garza. “We need to elevate those on the spectrum and raise awareness about their special needs during an emergency situation to keep them safe.”

Elevate the Spectrum teamed up with the University of New Mexico Center for Development and Disability to create a training video for first responders, to educate them on the need for proper use of the HERO bags.

The Garzas hopes to expand access to HERO bags statewide and are planning another event in April during Autism Awareness month.

“We thank everyone who attended, and urge the community to visit for more information regarding future events,” Garza added.