Helping a Child with Autism Deal with Disaster

Adapted from an article by Dr. Peter Faustino and Dr. Andrew Livanis

After natural disasters, children are likely very frightened and may need help better understanding what happened.

Individuals with ASD tend to be inquisitive, seeking to learn more about topics they are interested in. They may start talking a lot about floods, other natural disasters, death and tragedy. Below are some suggestions to help in processing information for children on the spectrum.

Talk to your children FIRST, when possible

It’s important that you identify what they know about the disaster and its aftermath. If asking them direct questions is difficult then listen and observe, so that you can use that as a foundation for discussion.

When introducing the issue, start with strategies that would work for all children:

  • Present the facts of the situation. Use clear and direct vocabulary. Define the words you use – don’t assume they carry the same meaning.
  • Talk about how horrible this situation was and how saddened people are due to this misfortune. Explain the emotions that others are likely experiencing, especially those who lost a loved one or their home.
  • Discuss how you and your child can work to make this situation better (volunteering, raising money, making cards, etc.) both at school and in the community. Children feel better if they can do something to help others.
  • Repeat the ways in which your child is safe. Show them safety strategies and explain that those are meant to protect everyone.
  • Monitor your media. News of the tragedy and its aftermath will be dominating the news cycle, so avoid news networks when your child is at home.

Communicate in a preferred style  

Some children prefer story-based interventions or pictures to represent a topic. We’ve included a framework below for you to individualize based on your child’s needs:

Something very sad happened and unfortunately many people died and lots of people lost their homes and all of their belongings. 

When a person dies, the body stops working. Many families are sad because they can’t see their family members or friends anymore. Many are sad because their house was destroyed and they lost lots of things that were very precious to them. People cry because they feel sad. It is okay to be sad and cry when someone dies or when they lose their home or their belongings.

  • When someone dies we can say, “I am sorry to hear this news.”
  • When I think of sad things I can (insert preferred activities that the child likes to do that will help them feel better). 
  • I will feel better after some time goes by.
  • I am safe because (insert things that help the child feel safe at home or school).

Recognize the process

You may notice that your child begins to talk excessively about natural disasters, death and dying. This may be their way of processing images that they don’t understand – a way to put reality in some sort of order. Research shows that children who are struggling in the aftermath of tragedies like natural disasters may resort to “playing out” or talking about the stress in an attempt to make sense of the insensible.

  • You may want to let your child know that this is a difficult time for all of us, since what happened does not make sense to anyone.
  • Remind the child that there were real-life heroes that helped save the day – the first responders and other volunteers who helped evacuate children and adults and pull them out of the damage, the people who may have let strangers into their shelters to help get them to safety, or the teachers who helped protect the children in school during the natural disaster. Help make these actions part of their narrative, if your child wants to discuss the event so he or she can also focus on the positive.

Watch for Changes

Listen carefully and watch what your child does. Breaks in routines may represent his or her method of communicating to you that they are distressed. Don’t be surprised if older, problematic behaviors resurface for a short period of time. Be especially tuned in to changes in eating or sleeping patterns. Changes like these can be a sign of concern. During this time, your child may need more support in their eating and sleeping routines.

If your child continues to evidence changes in their feelings, thoughts or behaviors (problems with sleeping or eating) for more than three months, it is important that you contact a professional for additional help.

Dr. Peter Faustino has been working as a school psychologist for more than 15 years. He is Past President of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP). Dr. Faustino maintains a private practice with the Developmental Assessment and Intervention Center (DAIC) in Bedford Hills, NY when he cofounded the Student Clubs for Autism Speaks. Student Clubs for Autism Speaks (SCAS) helps further the mission of Autism Speaks; through education, awareness, friendship and fundraising. He presents frequently at national conferences, schools, and parent organizations.

Dr. Andrew Livanis is currently the Chairperson of the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at LIU-Brooklyn.  He is a school psychologist and a behavior analyst who has worked with children and adults with autism spectrum disorder children for close to 20 years. Dr. Livanis serves on the board of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP) as the Public Relations Chair.