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.
- CDC: Caring for Children in a Disaster
- Institute on Development and Disability: Emergency Preparedness resources for people with disabilities and their caregivers
- Autism Society
- American Red Cross Pillow Case Project
- Sesame Street: Emergency Preparation