Helping Individuals with Disabilities during Emergency Situations

By Amy Goodman
Co-Director, Autism NOW

Individuals with autism and other disabilities may act differently in an emergency situation due to sensory challenges; therefore, their behavior should not be interpreted as threatening. It is important that first responders are aware of these behaviors so that they can effectively respond and assist individuals and their families. These suggestions are not only helpful for first responders, but can be used by caregivers, friends, or anyone who needs to know what to do to help an individual with a disability.

During an emergency situation, do your best to:

  • Talk in a normal, quiet, low-pitched voice. Shouting or talking loudly can be frightening to some people.
  • Ask permission to touch an individual. Some people may be alarmed if touched without warning. If you have to touch someone, use firm pressure. Do not use light touch because it will probably cause the individual to panic or flee. It could also trigger an unexpected response.
  • Lead an individual that is confrontational to a quiet space away from others. Give them as much time as you can to calm down on their own before trying to get them to make sense out of the situation.
  • Understand that some individuals may be afraid of uniforms or hats. If you are able, take off your hat and let them examine or wear it. This may help calm the individual so they can communicate with you.
  • Tell the individual exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it, and repeat yourself often.
  • Be aware that some individuals may try to hide because they are afraid. Some may flee or run to “water”, which is a common fascination for people with autism.  Some people seek out small enclosed spaces like dryers, cabinets, or closets because of the comfort of being in a “cocoon.”
  • Appreciate that many individuals with disabilities may not like loud sounds, especially high pitched noises above a certain frequency such as a fire alarm. Most individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will jump as if startled or cover their ears if they hear loud noises. Low decibel sounds are much better.
  • Recognize that many individuals with ASD need repetitive, concrete examples. Many do not like change. Individuals need predictability and need to know what to expect and what happens next.
  • Appreciate that people who do not use verbal communication would benefit from someone leading them (e.g. by the hand) and/or showing them the appropriate actions to take in case of an emergency. Some individuals may communicate by text or writing only, so they may need texts or tweets with updates and details about an emergency situation.

Abilities and challenges vary for those on the autism spectrum. Some individuals may have intellectual disabilities as well as ASD. When providing information and instruction during emergency situations, it is important that this information is accessible and easy to understand. First responders, family, friends and others that create written documents for use by people with ASD can consider the following:

  • Short and step-by-step directions should be provided.
  • For adults, written materials should be offered at two reading levels: simple (1st to 3rd grade reading level) and adult (10th grade and above reading level).
  • For adults and youth that cannot comprehend spoken or written instructions, pictures should be used in place of words. Pictures should be as realistic as possible.
  • Use real photos whenever possible.

Keep in mind that some individuals may understand what you are saying, but are not able to communicate with you verbally. Sign Language is another mode of communication that some people with autism may understand.

We hope this has been helpful and remember safety first. Always be respectful and try to put the individual at ease in an emergency situation. Never grab, or force an individual to do something. Lead by example, and hopefully the individual will understand the importance of what they need to do and follow suit.

Additional Resources

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