Autism and Bushfire Emergencies

Bushfire season is a stressful time for all of us, including children on the autism spectrum. Children on the autism spectrum can sense that adults around them are anxious, fearful and overwhelmed. Additionally, their anxiety increases as their routines, schedules and living situations are disrupted during the fires.

We would like to offer some suggestions for you to help your child adjust to the changes and the stresses related to the fires.

Tips and suggestions for all children on the autism spectrum:

  1. Establish structured activities throughout the day to keep the children occupied.
  2. Establish routines wherever you and the children are. Use pictures and written cues to help them comprehend and adjust to the new routines.
  3. Provide visual (i.e., written and picture) cues to help the child fully understand the new structure, routine and what is happening around them.
  4. Create as much normalcy as you can to help the children feel safe and calm.
  5. Decrease task demands. Also, provide them with visual cues with task demands to assist with full comprehension and attention when task demands are given.
  6. Make sure you gain their attention before addressing them. Always address and interact with the child in a calm manner.
  7. Provide the child with sensory and calming activities such as taking a walk, listening to music or deep pressure throughout the day and whenever you notice that the child is becoming anxious or overstimulated.
  8. Provide the child with a safe and calm area to go to when he/she becomes anxious or overstimulated.
  9. Use social scripts to help them understand their living situation, school situation, and other changes occurring around them. Some sample scripts are included at the end of this document.
  10. Pair visual cues with spoken information you provide the child regarding the fires and the child’s personal situation.
  11. Provide increased warnings (paired with visual cues) for transitions and changes. Provide them with as much time to prepare for changes in the environment and transitions as possible, especially with changes in living situations.

Tips for older children on the autism spectrum:

  1. Provide factual information regarding the fires. Adjust the information according to the child’s cognitive and developmental level.
  2. Reassure them that they will be taken care of and the adults will help keep them safe.
  3. Redirect them to ask questions and provide them with factual information regarding the fires and their situation whenever you see the child becoming anxious and acting out inappropriately due to the anxiety.
  4. Teach them about fires and how fire fighters fight fires.
  5. Tell them what is being done to keep him/her safe from the fires.
  6. Provide the children with solutions to topics that cause them anxiety and then role-play the solutions with them to further assist with comprehension and for them to retain the information provided.
  7. If the child repetitively asks questions due to heightened anxiety, write down the answers to their questions. Go over the responses with them and allow them to keep the written response. Redirect the child to the written response whenever they repeatedly ask the same questions.
  8. Provide them with opportunities to help other people and to become useful in this time of crisis.
  9. Constant input and exposure to information about the fires can increase fear and anxiety. Decreasing their opportunity of watching and gaining information regarding the fires from the media may help decrease anxiety.

Tips for parents with children on the autism spectrum:

  1. Minimise your own anxiety; your children are aware of your emotional state. Stay calm whenever you are with your children to also help them remain calm.
  2. Be aware of worsening allergies and asthma conditions due to the air quality. Allergies and asthma can contribute to acting out behaviours.
  3. You might need to provide explanations to your child and give instructions in simpler terms then what the child typically understands due to heightened anxiety. Just like us, when we are anxious we tend to misunderstand or not hear spoken information.
  4. You might need to utilise behavioural strategies that you previously used when the child was younger due to heightened anxiety. Again, like us, we regress in our behavioural and emotional functioning whenever our anxiety increases significantly.

Social stories to help with understanding the fires

Below are two social stories written to help children on the autism spectrum to understand what is happening in regards to the fires. The purpose of the social stories is to explain what is occurring around them, to know what they can expect and what to do when they become anxious about the fires.

Parents are advised to modify the social stories according to the child’s cognitive ability and developmental level. Additionally, parents should individualise the stories by inserting personal information to further help the child understand and attend to the stories.

Tips for use:

  1. Read the story to the child at the beginning of the day.
  2. Read the story to the child whenever he/she becomes anxious about the fires.
  3. Question the child about the content of the story to increase comprehension.
  4. Role-play and review the contents of the story with the child to assist with comprehension.

Social Stories

The first social story is titled: Fire. This is to help children who are able to stay in their homes understand what is happening around them and to help decrease their anxiety about the fires.

Fire

There have been fires burning near my house.

My family and I watch the news and see fires burning near my house.

I see smoke in the air and it can be hard to breathe.

Mummy or Daddy will take care of me and make sure that we are safe from the fire.

We are going to be OK.

When I feel scared or confused, I can ask my parents to tell me what is happening and I can ask my parents for help.

This way, I know what is happening and know that I am safe from the fires.


The second social story is titled: Fires and Leaving My House.

This is to help children who needed to leave their homes and may not be able to return to understand what is happening around them.

Fires and Leaving My House

There have been fires burning around my house.

My family and I watch the news and see fires burning near my house.

I see smoke in the air and it can be hard to breathe.

To help my family and I stay safe, we had to leave our house for a while.

We are staying at:

while we wait for the fire fighters to put out the fires.

We will be safe from the fires while we stay at:

The fire fighters and police will let us know if it is safe to go back to our house.

(For families with houses that were affected by the fire, change the wording to: “The fire fighters might tell us that our house is not safe to go back to. To help my family and I stay safe, we will find another house to live in. Mummy or Daddy will take care of me and make sure that we are safe no matter where we live.”)

When I feel scared or confused, I will ask Mummy or Daddy to tell me what is going to happen and to ask them for help.

This way, I know what is happening and also feel safe while waiting to go back home.

(For families with houses that were affected by the fire, change the wording to: “This way, Mummy and Daddy can tell me what is happening and where we will be living.”)

Mummy and Daddy will make sure that we all stay away from the fires and stay safe.

We are going to be OK.


This has been adapted from the original document written by Sandy Shaw, PhD.