Preparing for Emergency Situations for Children with Autism and related diagnoses
by Jaime Friedman
December 13, 2022
The holiday season is upon us, and with so much going on, it is important to practice good safety awareness. Accidents can happen at any time, but you can keep your family prepared with planning and practice.
Children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and related disorders, unfortunately, are not exempt from stranger danger. As your child ages and becomes more independent, they must be taught about stranger danger. Parents should look to define the term, “Stranger,” broadly, so that it includes any adult your child has not been introduced to. Parents should also establish that they can distinguish between a bad stranger and a trusted adult. Use examples of strangers and trusted adults in your child’s life to explain the difference. It is also helpful to identify strangers and potentially dangerous situations in real time.
If your child does meet a stranger, there are certain clues they can look for to know if they are in danger. Remind them that a safe adult would not:
- Approach a child in public who is unaccompanied by a parent (with exceptions being law enforcement)
- Ask personal questions about a child
- Attempt to make physical contact with a child
- Continue to pay attention to or watch a child after having an interaction
In a 2018 article published by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the five most commonly used methods for luring a child were”
- Offering to give a ride
- Offering candy/treats
- Asking questions
- Offering money
- Using an animal (i.e., lying about a missing puppy)
Candles and holiday lights are a couple of the leading causes of fires this time of year, but it is always a good time to practice fire safety at home. First and foremost, you should equip your house with smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and a ladder if necessary.
Once these safeguards are in place, you can include your child in the preparations. Every family should map out exit routes and a meeting place in case a fire does happen. Especially if your child has Autism or a related diagnosis and can get fixated on things, you can add potential fire hazards into your planning. A child with these disabilities may be drawn to buttons, wire or lights depending on their sensory preferences, but parents must find ways to either keep hazardous materials out of reach or to label unsafe items to indicate that they are unsafe for children to touch.
It could also be wise to schedule a meeting with your local fire department, or at least some members of the department. Sometimes a firefighter’s gear looks intimidating to a child. Children with sensory issues can meet firefighters in a relaxed setting to familiarize themselves with the uniform. In a fire emergency, every second counts, so learning to cooperate with fire fighters could save your child’s life. For more fire safety resources, please visit PAAutism.org.
Meeting Police and Law Enforcement Officers
Police officers encounter emergency situations on a daily basis. Because children with emotional and behavioral concerns may find themselves in an emergency situation, parents should contact their local police force to help them respond appropriately to any potential situation. If you have police on patrol in your neighborhood, it can be as simple as introducing yourself and your child. Tell the officer about your child’s diagnosis and what that means for the child’s strengths and needs. By developing a personal relationship with your child, police officers can know how to handle situations better in the future and how to have more positive interactions with your child.
Autism Speaks developed a list that parents of children with Autism can review with their local law enforcement agencies. It includes common tendencies of people with Autism and tips on how to interact with someone that has Autism.
A person with Autism might:
- Have an impaired sense of danger
- Wander to bodies of water, traffic, other dangers
- Be overwhelmed by police presence
- Fear a person in uniform
- Exhibit curiosity about a uniform and reach for objects/equipment (i.e., shiny badge, handcuffs, etc.)
- React with “Fight” or “Flight”
- Not respond to “stop” or other commands
- Have delayed speech and language skills
- Not respond to his/her name or verbal commands
- Avoid eye contact
- Engage in repetitive behavior (i.e., rocking, stimming, hand flapping, spinning, etc.)
- Have sensory perception issues
- Have epilepsy or seizure disorder
When interacting with a person with Autism:
- Be patient and give the person space
- Use simple and concrete sentences
- Give plenty of time for person to process and respond
- Be alert to signs of increased frustration and try to eliminate the source if possible as behavior may escalate
- Avoid quick movements and loud noises
- Do not touch the person unless absolutely necessary
- Use information from caregiver, if available, on how to respond
For more information on emergency preparedness, please visit the website for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). If you have questions about Autism testing, diagnostic testing for related disorders, Intensive Behavior Health Services (IBHS), or any of Aspire’s other services, please visit our homepage.