None of us like to think about it but the possibility of a natural disaster or traumatic event exists for us all. Hurricanes, terrorist attacks, tornados or floods are devastating to all but especially to a child with special needs.
Why? Because it upsets routine and makes life less predictable. A predictable routine and a schedule for what will happen next are two things a child on the autism spectrum thrives on. A lack of these two ingredients tends to increase anxiety, which in turn increases the risk of behavior issues and meltdowns. Coping with the neuro-typical world is difficult enough to cope with so an additional layer of stress just doesn’t seem fair.
As much as you do not like to entertain the idea of such possibilities, it's important to take the time to assess how your child might respond to such a situation. Doing so will pay great dividends in the long run.
Each child will respond uniquely to a traumatic event depending upon his or her personality and temperament as well as where they fall on the autism spectrum. A child’s ability to communicate, interact socially and the level of sensory sensitivities she possesses will determine the path she is likely to take.
Taking the time to delve deep and get to know our child’s tendencies intimately is an important first step when facing the possibility of an accident, a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Yes, we all know our children, but often times we fall into the trap of parenting by default and fail to put in the effort that parenting with intention requires. Doing so helps us customize the way we parent, thus making it easier to maintain a calm connection in times of crisis – one that will nurture and facilitate your child’s ability to cope.
This expanded level of intimacy about your child is critical for being able to help your child in the best way possible should he experience a situation that escalates his anxiety. In addition to acquiring a working knowledge of how your child’s brain is wired and how he is apt to respond in traumatic situations here are some other considerations to keep in mind.
- Prepare in advance. It’s not always possible to be fully prepared for any disaster but there is much parents can do in this unpredictable world to create a mindset that will help everyone cope better in case of an emergency. The process of considering possibilities in advance, good or bad, helps to give a person a better sense of control than if one were caught completely off guard.
- Teach your child a full vocabulary of feelings that goes beyond happy, sad, and mad. Acknowledge your child’s emotions by identifying what you see and giving the feeling a name. "I see a girl who is frustrated because mommy can't play with her right now?" By labeling what you are observing and naming it, your child is learning what it means to be irritated, anxious, frustrated or disappointed and the word for it.
- Maintain routines. During the event, try to find as many constants as possible and stick to them. In times of crisis you may not be able to adhere to your usual schedule but try to salvage as many routines or rituals as possible and stick to them. When you find yourself in a new situation such as staying in an emergency shelter adapting the routine your child is used to or creating a new routine will help. Doing so helps make things more predictable and provides reassurance to your child.
- Provide factual, specific and age appropriate information. Using the communication tools that work best for your child it’s always important to supply her with basic information about what is happening. Should she ask any additional questions, answer her with just enough information to help her cope but not too much info that might overwhelm. This is a delicate balancing act but is easier to accomplish when you truly understand how your child relates to the world around her.
- Ask for a recap. Once you have explained something to your child ask her to repeat what you just said if she is capable. This will help to verify the accuracy of her understanding and give you an opportunity to clarify any misconceptions that might exist. If she is non-verbal don’t be afraid to repeat yourself – repetition is beneficial for any child.
- Encourage expression of feelings. Whether your child is verbal or non-verbal, there are many ways to express one’s feelings. Experiment with all types of mediums for self-expression from drawing, painting, even scribbling to journaling. Using visuals, such as your own photos or PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), is a helpful way for children with limited communication skills to learn how to identify their feelings.
- Listen and validate. We can always tell when someone is really listening to us and so can our kids. Therefore, take the time to truly listen to your child and what he is saying. When your child shares his worries, concerns, wishes or dreams, validate his feelings and don’t judge. As parents we also need to remember to listen to what is NOT being said as well. Not all communication is verbal so pay close attention to your child’s non-verbal behavior and ask, “What is it telling me?”
- Monitor media. In the aftermath of any disaster it is prudent to control your child’s media diet. Over exposure to a traumatic event via television, newspapers and the internet can often undermine your best efforts and trigger anxieties that put you back to square one. Being overwhelmed with disturbing images and sound bites do nothing to empower but only serve to enhance a feeling of helplessness.
- Provide security in all forms. Your child’s physical safety and taking care of her basic needs in the midst of a traumatic event is crucial but so is her emotional safety. Supply her with any kind of emotional reassurance that is authentic and valid. NEVER make promises you cannot keep. Other information that might comfort her and make her feel safe in such circumstances is to address what is being done on a family and community level - what relatives, area agencies, the police and other safety personal are doing to help.
Overall, knowing your child well enough to anticipate how they may respond is key. But remember, your child grows and changes constantly. Therefore it’s important to stay abreast with the evolution of your child’s coping skills. Pay attention to and mark the progress your child makes in certain areas and focus on the skills that still need to be strengthened.
One can never be prepared for everything. In the best of circumstances we all hope we’ll never have to experience such tragedies but practicing these strategies is never a wasted effort. Engaging with your child in the manner suggested above will always be extremely valuable in helping him cope with everything else life may throw his way.