How to Prepare Your Child with Special Needs for the Next Hurricane*This post has been updated to reflect the most recent hurricane season. Last week there Hurrican Harvey ravaged and flooded Texas. This week Hurricane Irma is expected to hammer the Carribean Islands and make landfall on Florida. How do parents explain events like these to a child with special needs? More importantly, how do parents prepare their children with special needs for an emergency?
1. RehearseWhen firefighters teach fire safety to young children, they always emphasize the importance of practicing an emergency evacuation plan several times before an emergency occurs. This applies to all types of emergencies.
2. Pack the necessitiesIf you have some warning about a hurricane or other weather-related emergency, collect your child’s medication, insurance card, medical documents, cell phone with charger and recent photos of family members inside a sealed ziploc bag. Double-bag it if it makes you feel better, and keep it close to you in case of a sudden evacuation. Also keep orthotics or medical equipment nearby, preferably in a backpack or dufflebag so that you can carry it easily.
3. Plan a few meals aheadMany children with special needs are on special diets or formula, which may be impossible to continue during an emergency. Fill the kitchen sink and a cooler with ice so that you can plan out the next few meals without opening the refrigerator too often.
4. Comfort is a necessity, tooAllow your child to select a comfort item, such as a stuffed animal, to hold close during the emergency, and take that comfort item with you wherever you go.
5. Remain calm and confidentSome parents want to pretend that everything is normal during an emergency, which can be confusing to children with autism or cognitive impairments. Be honest and matter-of-fact in explaining the situation. Be confident when you assure your child that your job is to keep the family safe. If there’s not enough time to answer questions, tell your child the time and date that you will be able answer questions.
6. Give the kids a jobKeep your children involved in emergency preparedness. Ask them to find the sleeping bags and extra blankets. Put them in charge of flashlights and batteries. Have them fill up pitchers of drinking water. If your children can read, guide them through FEMA’s Emergency Supply List . Busy kids are less anxious and more confident.
7. Sensory toolkitEarplugs, soundproof headphones and white noise machines are important tools for reducing fear during a hurricane or thunderstorm. Other items to consider for your toolkit are soothing tactile input, such as silly putty or a fuzzy blanket, and something to block bright light, such as sunglasses, an eye mask or baseball cap.
8. CuriosityOn Monday my children asked me several times what a hurricane is, and I allowed them to play outside for a few minutes before the wind picked up. Once they realized that the wind was getting stronger, they came inside. They had to experience the weather before they fully understood it. Without risking their safety, I satisfied their curiosity. When the storm passes, we’ll be out there in our rain boots, stomping in puddles.
9. Keep your sense of humorLaughter is known to counteract stress hormones. Lighten up a tense situation with good humor to encourage optimism.
10. Low-tech funIf you’re waiting through a storm at home or stuck in an evacuation center, then it’s time to introduce old-fashioned fun and games. Get a deck of cards or a board game. Zip together your sleeping bags and tell stories. Sing songs. This is often what children remember most vividly about emergencies. It’s the silver lining of the hurricane’s clouds.
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