Emergency Preparedness for People with Developmental Disabilities

February 23, 2012 Prism Newsletter
By Jennifer Sladen

Here in Washington, DC, February has been relatively mild – coaxing people into a sense that the weather will stay mild and pleasant forever. So, while we are all granted a temporary reprieve from the winter weather, it is important to develop and review emergency plans when disasters – natural and otherwise – strike.

Disasters and emergencies create challenges for all people; however, for people with autism and other developmental disabilities, emergencies may also present additional challenges to daily routines and to the ability to communicate with first responder teams. These challenges arise because emergencies often result basic services like water, gas, or electricity being cut off. Without these services, typical routines like carrying out basic personal care, eating, and using medical equipment that needs electricity become more complicated or impossible. Additionally, interacting with first responders from the community may be difficult because of a lack of knowledge on the part of the responder and/or an inability of a person with autism and other developmental disabilities to express themselves, their needs, and injuries in an emergency situation.

As a result of these challenges, people with autism and other developmental disabilities and their families should think about planning and preparing for emergency and disaster situations. Four key steps are involved in emergency preparedness planning. These include:

  1. Finding out the types of disasters that may occur in your area, what community plans are in place in case a disaster occurs, and what types of assistance programs may be available for people with disabilities in emergencies;
  2. Developing a plan that includes preventive training and drills and visual aids for first responders and people with autism and/or other developmental disabilities so that everyone knows where to go, what to do, and how to interact during emergencies;
  3. Assembling a kit of materials – medical supplies and medicines for injuries or illness, survival materials like flashlights and blankets, and non-perishable food and distilled water – that a family or person with autism and/or other developmental disabilities may need in an emergency situation; and
  4. Maintaining your plan and supplies and reviewing the plan periodically with all family members, with trusted neighbors, and with any other person who may need to know so that everyone can help ensure that the emergency plan is followed.

Unfortunately, even with these plans, disaster may occur. However, with planning, most of the confusion and difficulties can be overcome.

For more detailed information about planning, safety kits, tips for what to do during disasters, check out the following websites:


Jennifer Sladen is the Program Associate for the Autism NOW Center.

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