Having an autistic child can be challenging in the most unexpected ways sometimes. Over the weekend, a car crash knocked out some power lines in the next town over and threw half of our town into an electrical failure that lasted 9 hours. For a person who has autism, any change in routine can be unsettling. So you can imagine how hard it was for my son to adapt to going without electricity for such a long span! We’ve prepared him for small emergencies and power interruptions but this one was just too long for him to cope with.
Our Bug used to be absolutely terrified of the dark. Now he does pretty well when darkness is expected – but he needs to know he can turn the lights back on if he wants to. When the power went out, it was only 1:00 in the afternoon. But even so, it was a grey day and our downstairs was pretty dark without the lights. We opened all the curtains up wide and we tried to reassure our boy that the electricity would be restored really soon. But he kept going over to the light switches and flicking them off and on. It was obvious he was really upset that he couldn’t control the lighting in the room.
Redirecting and Tools for Coping with the Power Failure
Part of our strategy for dealing with any of our son’s anxieties is redirection, which works well with a lot of autistic people. We simply try to draw his attention to something else when he gets upset, to get him involved in an activity we know he finds pleasant. So I offered to read a book to my Bug – which he politely declined – and then his sister showed him that he could still use his iPad while there was a bit of a charge left in the battery.
He’s used to plugging the iPad in when the battery gets low, so it upset him that he couldn’t do that during the outage. But we were finally able to get him playing some of the games he has installed, and that kept his mind occupied for quite a while.
We had a huge thunderstorm shortly after the power failure started, which delayed the repairs by several hours. But once the rain abated, we used the gas burner on our barbecue to boil water in an old metal percolator I bought at a secondhand shop. I made coffee, which my son again refused. So we warmed some milk in a saucepan and made him a cup of hot vanilla. We’d been planning on hot chocolate, but we couldn’t quite locate the cocoa in the dark!
Sitting in his favourite chair to sip a hot drink made our Bug feel safer. As I said above, a familiar routine is comforting for an autistic child. Doing something that feels normal helped him to relax a bit and forget his worries, as did having a hot meal later at suppertime. We also gave our son a flashlight that he could carry around the house and we lit some candles in the kitchen and living room, even though my daughter and I really didn’t need them yet to see.
Fear in the Dark, Fear of the Unknown
By the time it started to get dark, we’d managed to cook a full hot supper on the barbecue: grilled pork chops with a creamy mushroom sauce, boiled carrots, and rice. Everyone was happy with the results even though we hadn’t bothered to reheat the rice, which was a leftover from the previous night’s meal. The sauce warmed it a bit and made it moist, so it wasn’t worth the effort of trying to steam rice on the barbecue while everything else was cooking.
We had been expecting the power to go back on around 6 pm, which is what the power company had said. But then they pushed the time back to 8 pm, and then they said 10 pm. So we were done with supper and the iPad had run out of juice. And nobody felt like another hot drink. Fear was starting to set in again for our boy, who had coped well with the initial delays but was now finding the power failure exceedingly long. And as the sun dipped down to kiss the horizon and the sky began to darken, the Bug started to panic. I’m sure he was wondering if he’s ever see the light of day again!
He started to go back to the light switches again and when there was no positive result, he began to pace back and forth while mumbling to himself. Eventually, he went to hover by the front door. He put his shoes on and started to talk about getting out of the house. I’m sure he was starting to feel trapped.
You might think that in a case like that, an autistic person might need to get outside and have a breath of fresh air. But my son went to hide in the tiny powder room. And despite his worries about the closing darkness, he shut himself in there with not even the flashlight for comfort. Being in a small space actually made him feel better. When he’s upstairs, he’ll go to hide in his closet. The small, dark spaces help to cut down on the sensory inputs he has to deal with; they soothe him and make him feel safe again.
Preparing an Autistic Person for an Emergency
My son was able to get through the last two hours of the power failure, but it was just by the skin of his teeth. We did everything we could to reassure him and remind him that the power company was working on the repairs. Even with all our combined efforts, the extreme length of the incident is what made it so tough to cope with.
Our Bug has spent years practising for power failures, fires, and even preparing in case the school should ever have to go into lockdown. We have used really obvious methods to help him understand what’s going on, but his teachers at school have also used some pretty subtle methods to get him used to changes in his routine so he won’t panic. One of my favourite approaches is that they rearrange the kitchen in the classroom completely every so often and when he goes to find something in its usual place, they tell him he has to look somewhere else. It seems like a really small thing. But think how much it throws you off if someone “helps” you put your dishes or groceries away, and nothing is in the right place when you go to get it the next time!
Some other methods to prepare an autistic person for emergencies are listed below. We’ve used a lot of these strategies with our son, and had success with most of them. The main factor in helping someone to cope with the change in routine, though, is time. You can’t just do these things once or twice, or even a handful of times. It’s got to be done over and over and over again. In our case, it took years before our Bug was able to cope with things like fire drills at school and power failures or water outages. And as you’ve read above, if the event goes on for some time, it can still be a source of great stress and anxiety for an autistic person.
Teaching Strategies to Help Autistic People Prepare for an Emergency
- Reading children’s stories about emergency situations, illnesses, or hospital stays;
- Watching movies that depict police, firefighters, paramedics, and other emergency personnel at work;
- Visiting a fire station or getting a ride on a firetruck, as our son did in this year’s annual town parade;
- Creating visual schedules for an emergency, either with hard copy pictograms or with an app like Choice Works;
- Participating in fire drills and other emergency preparedness activities;
- Simply changing the routine at home or school sometimes;
- Planning and taking different routes to familiar places, in case of a detour.
There are lots of strategies you can use to prepare an autistic person for an unexpected even like a long power failure or a severe storm. There are also lots of great tools to help prepare for an emergency, illness, or medical or dental visit so your autistic child won’t be afraid. But even though you may put many of them into practice, you should expect that a person who lives with autism will still experience some stress during a major change in routine – especially if it’s a situation that lasts for some time.
Routine and familiar things help autistic kids and adults to cope. Predictability is important, and having a structured routine most of the time makes it easier for an autistic person to cope with those times when all predictability goes out the window. Our home routine is pretty loose, compared to our Bug’s schooldays. But he still knows what to expect at home. So having a power failure that essentially changed the rules of his universe for the better part of the day was still rough on him, despite all the things he’s done to prepare for such occasions.
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Original content © 2016 Kyla Matton Osborne
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