Autism and Preparedness

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Father and Son

There is a new neighbor on Sesame Street. Her name is Julia and she’s helping dispel decades-old stereotypes about autism. Julia is a little girl with autism and her move to “where the air is sweet” coincided with April being Autism Awareness Month. Our new neighbor is helping us think about the challenges of parenting a child of autism. One of those challenges is preparing children with special needs for public health emergencies.

Children are affected by disasters differently than adults. Mental stress from a disaster can be harder on children because they may not understand what is going on around them and don’t have experience bouncing back from difficult situations. Having autism can further compound this stress for a child and their family.

Any parent of a child with special needs will tell you that it takes patience and perseverance to accomplish even everyday tasks. Preparing your child for something as potentially disruptive as a natural disaster might sound stressful or maybe even seem impossible depending on the exact needs of your child. Here are some tips we hope will help.

Small change…big problem

As you are well aware of, minor change of plans can cause big problems for children on the autism spectrum. While it might seem daunting to imagine how responding to an emergency such as a tornado warning might impact your son or daughter, thinking through all of the potential complications can help you prepare for your child’s specific needs.

Prepare for immediate needs long before disaster

Start by assembling the same tools and resources as you would for any child. That includes creating a basic emergency supplies kit and making a family emergency plan. Then add a few items specific for your child’s particular needs. You’ll want to include:

  • Medical ID for your child
  • At least a 3-day supply of all medicines
  • List of your child’s triggers and helps for behavior issues
  • Names and contact information for all doctors and therapists
  • Complete list of your child’s health records
  • Names and serial numbers for medical equipment

Don’t forget that it’s important to keep all your kits and supplies, including medical devices, in a handy location. Also, if your child with autism is able to communicate and to follow instructions, give them a developmentally-appropriate version of your family’s emergency plan.

Wear your inner strength on the outside

Your child with autism may be particularly in tune with the moods of the adults around them and may sense stress, anxiety, and frustration, and then mimic the mood or behavior. The best way to prepare for being able to express your inner strength is to regularly take care of yourself. Utilize respite care services and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Regularly reaching out to your network of friends, relatives, and/or co-workers for assistance will help you practice in case of an emergency situation.

All these things can help to give your special needs child a sense of security and safety, before, during, and after the disaster.


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3 comments on “Autism and Preparedness”

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    My son is going to college in a year. He has autism, high functioning. I asked one college disability office if they had a special plan in place for these children/students (think frequent hurricanes and tornadoes) and they said no, they had never thought about needing that! Maybe you all can create a campaign to help colleges and universities to think these things through?

    My doughter is going to school in class 10. I asked one college disability office if they had a special plan in place for these children.

    All children have a natural tendency to become nervous, anxious, and scared during a natural disaster situation. Having to experience that with a special needs child with autism, can become especially challenging. As a mother of a 7 year old girl with high functioning Asperger’s Autism, I completely understand how important it is to have a plan and review that emergency plan with those special needs children, on multiple occasions, so that they can ingest the idea of what it would be like, and what to do in an emergent situation before it actually happens. As a nurse, having the health records, diagnosis, medications and contact information for providers of autistic patients is essential in assuring that child gets the best quality care they can in the instance they are displaced due to a disaster. Any change can be difficult to accept among children with autism, and having plans such as these can not only help the family in being prepared, but also allow the child to have more emotional preparedness and less traumatic experience if they do encounter a disaster scenario.

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Page last reviewed: May 8, 2017
Page last updated: May 8, 2017