Emergency Preparedness for Children Diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum

June 5, 2017

Preparing for emergency situations such as severe weather is an important step to take for any family. You and your family need to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice and react with little time to spare. This can be a difficult and possibly traumatic experience for any individual, but it doesn’t need to be!

During an Emergency/Crisis

During an emergency/crisis it is easy to become panicked; however, this panic can lead to increases in panic and stress in your child. They look to you to better understand the severity of the situation, which is why it is important to remain calm. Think of when a young child falls and before they begin crying they look around to assess the situation. If an adult swoops in with an, “Oh no! Are you ok, poor guy?” the child may start to cry. In the same situation, if the adult remains calm and stands the child up and prompts them to keep moving, there is less of a chance of tears! This idea applies to situations of varying severity, from a simple fall off a bike to a hurricane or tornado. When your child looks to you to assess the situation, make sure you’re calm and in control.

Something we work on with many of the children we serve, that should also be practiced at home is walking with an adult. A child should be able to walk with you with and without holding hands. They should also stop walking when told, wait in place without wandering, and return to you when you call their name. These skills are deficit in many of the children we work with and are of critical importance, especially in emergency situations.

We also suggest teaching children to label important personal information in case you may become separated. A child should know their own name, parents’ names, their address, and phone number. If your child is currently non-vocal, having this information listed on a card and teaching your child to offer this card upon hearing those questions is a good alternative.

Preparing Your Child

Small disruptions or changes to routine can be very challenging for kids diagnosed on the spectrum. Being aware of and practicing what you would do in an emergency beforehand is a must! By practicing in a controlled setting and situation you can isolate potential problem areas or concerns before you may be placed in a true emergency. Practice your emergency plan including gathering materials for a survival bag* getting in the car as a family, and even traveling along evacuation routes. While you’re traveling be on the lookout for possible agitators. If your child is very routine oriented and becomes upset when you make a left and they’re used to you taking a right, this practice will help! If your child sees certain landmarks and becomes distressed, you will know this ahead of time and can prepare accordingly.  Try to make this practice as real as possible. Try to evacuate at random times of the day and night and keep your lights off to simulate a power outage. The more realistic it is the truer the practice will be. Even slight differences can make an impact to a child diagnosed on the spectrum and that impact could result in more severe issues!

* There are many websites that itemize potential contents of a survival bag but it’s important not to forget comfort items such as portable DVD players with favorite movies, a tablet, preferred toys/edibles, batteries, ear plugs/isolation headphones, any medication your child may be taking, or an augmentative communication device for non-vocal children such as an icon exchange book or electronic device with a push to speak application.

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