For any parent, the possibility of experiencing a natural or local disaster with your child is terrifying. Parents with children on the Autism spectrum, however, face more significant challenges—navigating the disaster event and recovery with a child who is hypersensitive to external stimuli, less able to process rapidly developing events and verbal instructions, and process emotions. To help the parents in your community with a child living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to prepare for an emergency, share the following advice in your next citizen education outreach.
What is ASD?
ASD is a complex developmental disability whose symptoms typically first appear during childhood and adolescence. Individuals with ASD often face difficulties communicating and interacting with others. As a “spectrum” condition, individuals with ASD can experience a wide range of symptom severity. While there is no known cause of ASD, experts assert that early diagnosis and access to support services dramatically improves outcomes.
To help your child navigate a disaster scenario as safely as possible—both emotionally and physically—follow these best practices.
- 1. Emanate Calm
A child with ASD will be hyper-sensitive to your mood and anxiety levels, which means if you begin to panic outwardly, your child will too. It may seem like an impossibility during a natural disaster or terror event but summon all your strength to present a calm front for your child. A child with ASD will be better able to process your instructions if not spiraling into rapid panic himself.
- 2. Add Your Child’s Pertinent Medical Information to Your Emergency Preparedness Kit
Every family must have a stocked and easily accessible emergency preparedness kit. A well-built kit should include emergency and family contact information, batteries, water, non-perishable food items, and medications. For your ASD child, however, you will also want to include:
- Contact information for your child’s physicians and therapists.
- His/her health records.
- Nearby treatment facilities that can accommodate your child’s needs.
- A list of behavioral triggers and medical needs, in case your child is separated from you.
- Tools and devices to aid with your child’s triggers. For example, if your child has a sound sensitivity, add earplugs to your safety kit.
Also, involve your child in the process of building the emergency kit. Giving him a chance to take part in its creation will help him understand its purpose and have a sense of understanding, should the items ever be needed.
- 3. Create a Communication Plan that Relies on Nearby Friends and Family
By developing a quickly actionable communication plan, when a disaster strikes, you will be one step ahead of the chaos of uncertainty and best able to minimize your risk of injury and loss. Your communication plan should also leverage help and support from trusted friends, family, and neighbors. Learn more about building a family emergency communication plan here.
- 4. Identify Your Child
Leverage local resources to help keep your ASD child safe. If your local emergency management office maintains a database of citizens with disabilities, register your child. Such records are used by public safety officials to help quickly locate disabled citizens during a disaster. Also, outfit your child with a medical alert bracelet that communicates that he/she has ASD and any unique circumstances, such as the child being non-verbal. If aided by a public safety expert, he or she will need to understand your child’s individual needs and limitations, even if the child cannot communicate them himself.
- 5. Arrange for Your Child’s Service Animal
If your ASD child utilizes a service animal, make sure your emergency preparations include your pet’s needs. Add pet food, extra water, food bowls, and veterinarian contact information to your emergency kit. Consider adding a GPS tracking pet tag to your animal so that he/she can be located during an emergency if you are separated.
- 6. Practice Safety Drills
Your child may interpret any event that interrupts his routine with frustration and resistance. By regularly practicing where to go and what to do in an emergency scenario, your ASD child will be better able to respond based on what you have practiced, rather than responding with confusion and distress.
There is no way to prepare emotionally for a local disaster, but every parent owes it to his family to take the steps necessary to plan as thoroughly as possible. An ASD child will need your most conscientious care and consideration during an emergency. By preparing tools in advance and having the support of trusted resources, you can give your child the attention and focus he needs as you navigate the events and move into recovery.
For practical ways to share these and other emergency safety best practices with your citizens, download our ebook, a Public Safety Officer’s Guide to Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications.