What a horrific year for Colorado. My family was among those evacuated due to fire (click here for an amazing time lapse video of the first 36 hours of this fire). As of this moment, I am back in my home. But while my neighborhood was blessed with weather breaks and well timed rain that helped crush the Flagstaff Fire (still only 40% contained at the moment, but prognosis is good), thousands are displaced from their homes all over the state. And no doubt, a number of those are families affected by autism.
Evacuating sucks. We had our check list. But when it comes down to watching smoke and flames billowing in your neighborhood, it’s still pell mell. While my husband hurried home from work, I went through the motions: Vital records. Passports. Mortgage documents. Tax records. Photo albums (all of them? some of them? what about the hundreds of photos in boxes in the basement?). Health records. Check book (who uses those anymore?). Computers. Phones. Et cetera, et cetera. But I didn’t have boxes for any of this stuff. Into plastic garbage bags it went, which doesn’t help once at the destination – pawing through trash that isn’t yet trash is what this becomes. Then onto food, medications, supplements that might be needed. Again, what do I put all this in? How do I organize it at my destination? How many days’ clothing? Then cats. Two cats, one carrier. Oops. On and on. Anxiety froze my teen son while I scurried around, but after some prompts, he earnestly set about packing things dear to his heart: Model trains he painstakingly rebuilt, airbrushed, painted, and customized; a ceramic creation from school; some of his paintings and art work; a rosary given to him by his grandparents.
This is where it can become a totally different journey. Persons along the autism spectrum of any age – young child, school age, teen or adult – are likely to suffer much more anxiety or emotional reactivity than others in a fire evacuation – which is among the most anxiety provoking things imaginable. Routines and sameness become even more essential. We were fortunate to have a friend out of harm’s way but not too far from our home, with a big house, who was out of town and opened her home to us. When we arrived, we were free to cook our dinner and tend to our needs without interruption. It was as smooth a transition as could be hoped, and we were able to return home in about thirty hours. But how many families are not so lucky? Settled at our own dinner table this evening, with deep gratitude, we all thought about ways to help evacuee families affected by autism. Here’s our list:
- Ask what routines are most essential to this family or to the affected person’s well being. Respectfully allow those as possible, without judgment.
- Make grocery trips for needed foods, rather than assuming evacuees are up to the shop. After running laps in and out of the house to load a car, heading to the supermarket for forgotten essentials is the last thing a tired and stressed family needs.
- Buy exactly what is requested for foods, right down to brand preferences. People on the autism spectrum can have rigid food preferences and routines, while others use restricted diets essential to their functional ability. Varying off the food part of the routine can be extremely disruptive for a person with autism, or even akin to going off medication if they are using a special diet.
- Expect odd behavior as this person may work hard to manage escalated anxiety. My son’s suggestion: “Let them open and close doors, switch lights on and off, play with the vacuum cleaner, or whatever their obsession is, let them do it. They will need to focus a lot on it to stay calm.” I can go with this, within safe parameters.
- Think cats: When stressed, they retreat, and like to hide in small spaces. This can be true of youngsters with autism too. Create a separate space suited to the age – a big appliance box with pillows, a play tent, a small quiet room that can be closed off for reading, watching a DVD, or playing a computer game. Let the person with autism have this space if need be. Don’t insist that they socialize with your children or with anybody for that matter. They may be too overwhelmed, and unable to express that.
- Consider that loud and chaotic activity may be overload that leads to total meltdown for a person with autism. While typical kids might welcome a loud boisterous game or lots of giggling and squealing with the Wii as a distraction, these can push a child with autism over the falls. Check in with the evacuee family on tolerable noise levels for things like music, TV, how to best mix with other kids in the house, barking dogs, or kitchen noise. Help strategize ways to allow the person with autism to buffer that if need be.
- Support vigilance for the whereabouts of a child, teen, or adult with autism at all times. In a new and overwhelming setting, elopement or fleeing is common, and obviously dangerous. If you have a pool or are near water, this is paramount: Drowning is the top cause of death for children with autism.
- Don’t assume evacuees are at ease leaving an affected child in your hands, and don’t be offended if they aren’t. Do the errands for them instead, and let them comfort their loved one with autism in the new setting.
- An anxious child with autism is probably going to behave in disruptive and annoying ways, or may remain inconsolable and terror stricken. Don’t judge or offer parenting advice. Period. Instead, when you have time, read up on this parenting journey with authors like Tony Attwood or Patricia Bashe and Barbara Kirby.
- Don’t introduce pets to a child on the spectrum without first checking with the evacuee family on what is best. Some persons with autism adore dogs and other animals, while some are extremely anxious around them. Some with autism intuit how to handle and behave around pets while others may not. One affected child I met was delighted with a friend’s cat, but did not differentiate this from roughhousing with a dog or stuffed animal; luckily we separated the two before either was injured.
- Don’t talk about the affected person’s condition (child, teen, or adult) in front of them or assume they don’t understand you.
- Don’t give the affected person information about the fire, their home, or circumstances without first vetting protocol for this with the family. Don’t discuss details of the emergency that caused evacuation in earshot of the affected person with an assumption that they are not listening or understanding you. They may be acutely aware of and understanding what you are saying.
While many kids may regard being welcomed into a friend’s home in a crisis as a sleepover adventure, it may feel like a foreign and frightening land to a child with autism. Sensitivity to this difference can make all the difference for an evacuee family. For more information on how to help evacuees, visit HelpColoradoNow.org. My thanks go out to the incredible fire fighters who are up on Bear Mountain in the dark as I write this, and will be up there all night, defending our safety just a couple thousand feet below.