The time during and after a serious storm such as Hurricane Irene can be an overwhelming time for anybody. However, having a disorder on the autism spectrum can make the experience even more harrowing as the uncertain nature of storm relief can trigger serious anxiety attacks attributed to the condition. A common and widely-accepted method of preventing anxiety is to form a rigid routine for the affected child. When faced with power outages and the chaos of a storm, though, it is nearly impossible to maintain a normal schedule. Here are some tips for parents and caregivers for children with autism spectrum disorders to help make relief efforts as smooth as possible:
1. Keep calm and collected: Children with autism are prone to attacks of sensory overload, which can occur when too much excitement is happening at one time. To prevent these attacks, try to reduce the sense of urgency or tenseness that occurs when evacuating due to floods or power outages by maintaining a feeling of control. Make the emergency seem like less of an emergency. Try to answer any questions asked by the child in a relaxed manner, even if they are questions that have been asked before. When an autistic child is stressed, she may be calmed by the repetition of certain questions.
2. Keep the child informed: As the child’s routine has been disrupted, he or she will be scrambling to quickly form a new one. Explain to the child why it is necessary to leave the house or why he or she cannot stick to his or her routine. This significantly reduces the anxiety that comes with such a situation. Provide details and updates as they become available. If evacuation is necessary, help the child plan by giving him any details about the evacuation site so that he can form a picture in his head. If you are able to, evacuate to a location that the child finds familiar, such as a certain hotel or a relative’s house.
3. Be aware of sensory issues: Extended power outages can be very difficult for children with autism spectrum disorders as many face hypersensitivity to light contrast. When night begins to fall, hypersensitive children may face trouble seeing due to a decreased ability to adjust to light changes. This low vision level can be dangerous as it greatly affects the child’s depth perception and his or her ability to put his or her body into surrounding space. At this point the child will be very susceptible to tripping and stumbling over furniture. Giving an extra-bright flashlight to the child can be helpful, and clearing a wide path throughout the home can prevent injuries.
If you are traveling away from home, be sure to pack a pillow and blanket that are familiar to the child, as they may find those at hotels or other sites to be itchy or aggravating. Attach headphones to any electronic devices to block out hectic background noise, and ensure access to familiar snacks for picky or special-needs eaters.
4. Keep the child entertained: Occupy the child with familiar activities such as hand-held video games, books, or movies played on a portable DVD player. This restores a sense of normalcy in the face of uncertainty and can prevent sensory overload in an evacuation situation. When planning for a storm, ensure means of providing these activities to the child. Find a DVD player that is powered by batteries rather than one that needs to be recharged. If this is not possible, make the storm interesting for the child. When conditions allow, take the child for a walk and show them how the storm affected your area. Draw for them the path of the hurricane and explain how the storm works.
Maintaining a sense of normalcy by keeping a child with autism calm will help to prevent any additional difficulties during a storm for both the child and those around him.