In 2015, I wrote an article about Hurricanes, natural disasters and planning for these disasters with people with autism in mind. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey devastating my hometown of Houston, I wanted to re-share some of those thoughts, so that people preparing for future unexpected natural disasters and those working to survive through Harvey can best understand how to communicate with people with autism in these situations.
Most importantly, it’s key to remember that people on the autism spectrum are hypersensitive to changes in routine. Not knowing what comes next can be panic-inducing.
Here are a few ways the we can prepare for disasters and the impending road trips they may cause:
Read a Book About It
Create a visualization of what the trip will be like and what your family’s plan will be if rough weather is encountered. A picture book can serve this purpose, or make a chart with picture icons of the steps you will take if a weather emergency arises. Your child can keep the book or chart in a backpack along with an itinerary of the trip and other personal preparedness items. That way the information can be reviewed whenever your child would like.
Include Your Child in the Emergency Prep
Your child can help put together the basic items for an emergency kit that can be kept in a weather proof travel container inside the car. Knowing that the family has the items needed to handle common injuries, illnesses and safety situations is a vital reassurance for children with autism.
Do a Practice Drill
Before the trip, practice what your family will do if there is a severe weather emergency while you are driving. Act out the steps you will take if there is an accident or if you are forced to seek shelter. Listen to a recording of the sounds of thunder, tornado sirens and high winds so that these are less of a shock to your child if they occur. Show your child photos or video of what first responders look like, and how to contact them or react to them if the situation arises.
Remember to pack all medications as well as a list of your child’s prescriptions. If your child is non-verbal, a medical bracelet or I.D. tag is important. Pack plenty of your child’s favorite non-perishable comfort foods, as well as favorite toys and familiar clothing so that your child will feel more secure in an unfamiliar environment.
Know Your Child’s Sensitivities and Triggers
Anticipate your child’s anxieties and what you can do to head them off. Technology provides structure and comfort for many autistic children. Bring along noise-canceling headphones that can be connected to a portable device loaded with favorite music, apps, movies and games. I also suggest investing in a portable battery charter and, if your child uses the Internet regularly, a mobile wi-fi hotspot. These items take on even more importance if you’re forced to take an evacuation route, because you could be in the car for many hours.