How to Prepare Your Special Needs Child for an Emergency

Practice is key at home and at school

Emergencies can occur anywhere, at any time. Sometimes your child with special needs is at home with you; other times she's at school or in the community. What's the best way to handle situations like these?

  • There's a fire in the kitchen. Everyone needs to get out of the house, right now. But your autistic daughter, upset by the sound of the smoke alarms, refuses to budge. What do you do now?
  • Your son is epileptic and was due for his medication just as the school went into a lockdown drill. Now he's stuck without his medication for the duration of the drill. Should he get back into the school and get to the nurse's office? How should the situation be handled?
  • You have a daughter in a wheelchair. Her classroom is on the second floor. During an emergency event, the elevator is shut down. Now what?
  • You're on your way home with a child who has emotional or behavioral issues when another car hits yours. No one's hurt, but between inspecting the damage and calling the police your child has disappeared. What do you do?

These are just a few of the emergency scenarios that can and do occur on a regular basis. The reasons are simple: too little planning, too little practice, and too little consideration for the particular needs of individuals with special needs.

Children who evacuation from earthquake
maroke / Getty Images

Planning for Emergencies at Home

At home, emergency planning is entirely up to you, for better or for worse. On the upside, you have complete control over how you'll plan for and manage emergencies. On the downside, there are no rules or regulations to follow, which means it's easy to let planning and preparation slide. 

Here are some tips for ensuring that you're ready for an emergency with your special needs child.

Follow Ordinary Emergency Planning Procedures

Start with the basics: smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, fire extinguishers in the kitchen, emergency ladders in upper rooms. Have a list of emergency phone numbers by the phone or on the fridge: poison control, police, and neighbors or family who should be informed.

Modify the Basics as Needed

If your child is likely to be terribly upset by the sound of an alarm, consider replacing the loud alarm with a flashing light or buzz. If your child is physically unable to hurry down a flight of stairs, consider a ground floor bedroom. If your child needs particular objects or toys to stay calm, pack those objects (or ones that are similar to his favorites) and keep them near the door. A pair of sound-blocking headphones may also be a good idea. If your child takes regular medications, pack enough for a day or two, and be sure they're current.

Practice Emergency Procedures When Everyone Is Calm

Choose a time and day when your child is at his best to practice emergency procedures. If it's helpful, provide her with a picture book or social story describing the process of evacuating the house. Include information about what will happen before, during, and after evacuation, including waiting outside and expecting the flashing lights and loud sirens of a police, fire, or emergency vehicle.

Prepare First Responders for Your Child

Police and firefighters can work with you to develop a plan for your child's particular needs. This is especially important if your child is physically disabled, has difficulty communicating or understanding spoken commands, or is likely to either hide or run away. Provide first responders with photos of your child as well as specific information about her diagnosis, medications, behaviors, and needs. Provide any information you can about how to communicate with and calm your child in case of an emergency. In many cases, first responders will allow your child to look inside their vehicles, listen to a siren, and become familiar with the tools of their trade.

Provide Your Child With Identification

There are many ways to ensure your child can be identified in an emergency. Medical bracelets are one good option. Other possibilities include digital tracking devices or even old-fashioned clothing tags. Include your child's name, diagnosis, critical medical information, and a contact number.

Create an Emergency Information Form and Keep It Accessible

An emergency information form is a list of your child's medications, doctors, special devices or needs, contacts, and other critical information. It can be handed to a first responder and used even if you are not available to answer questions. It can also be shared with friends, neighbors, and family in case you are separated from your child or unable to respond.

Planning for Emergencies in the Community

Once you've completed your home planning process you've taken your first steps toward planning for an emergency in the community (a car accident, a building evacuation, etc.). Your child has practiced emergency procedures, is known to (and knows) first responders and is wearing some sort of ID. Here are a few more safety tips:

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Few of us walk into a restaurant and look for emergency exits, but as the parent of a child with special needs, it's a good idea to do just that. In addition, be aware of the location of stairwells in case elevators are shut down. In a restaurant, ask to be seated toward the front of the building nearest the main entrance. In a hotel, consider requesting a room on the lowest floor. These small choices will make it easier and less stressful to leave the building if you need to.

Keep Your Eyes (and a Hand) on Your Child 

Children with sensory, behavioral, and emotional disorders find emergencies particularly disturbing. Some children will want to get as far away from the scene as they can, and will simply bolt. If your child falls into this group, don't be distracted: keep your hands and eyes on your child at all times.

Make a Plan

Most people frequent certain community locations on a regular basis. If you consistently bring your child to the supermarket, the library, or a particular class or program, ask the manager to share their emergency plans with you. Based on what you learn, you can work with the manager or owner to come up with the best plan for your child.

Keep a Supply of Medications and Emergency Information Form on You
If you can't get home or are not able to speak for your child, all the information and supplies he needs will be accessible.

Planning for Emergencies at School

Many parents worry about school emergencies, especially in an era when school shootings seem to be on the rise. While parents have quite a bit of control over what happens at home or in the community, they have relatively little control at school. That doesn't mean, however, that parents are helpless to help their children. In fact, most school districts have specific emergency policies for students with disabilities (and all should have such policies in place). In addition, your child's individualized educational plan (or 504 plan) can and should include emergency accommodations.

The fact that such policies and plans can or should exist, however, doesn't guarantee that teachers and staff know how to help your child in an emergency. That job (as is often the case) is the parent's. To ensure your child's safety, you may need to review the existing policies and work with teachers, staff, and other parents. Here are some tips for getting started.

Know What's Already in Place

Some districts really are on top of emergency planning for all students and know exactly how to support special needs students. Ask your child's guidance counselor for information about existing plans, and ask to see a copy of any written policy.

Talk With Other Parents

Many districts have special needs parent groups that meet regularly. If that's the case in your district, there's a good chance that this issue has already come up and been addressed. Ask the head of your district's special needs parenting group about what they've done in the past, and what outcomes they've seen. If you like what you hear, you can rest easy. If you don't, you already have a group of people with a shared concern who can address the issue from a position of strength.

Ask Questions

If you're like many parents, you're not completely aware of the types of drills and emergency preparation already in place in your child's school. You may not know how your child has responded to emergency drills in the past, or how your child's teacher has helped her class to prepare. Make an appointment to sit down and chat with your child's teacher to learn more about what she has done in the past, what's worked well, and what's been a problem.

Think Broadly

If your district, school, or teacher has no solid policy or plan for managing special needs children in an emergency, you're not alone. Consider working with other parents and staff to think through the needs of a broad range of special needs students whose needs may not be identical. 

Use the Power of Your IEP

The individualized educational plan is a legal document, and accommodations in the IEP are binding. That means that a well-crafted emergency plan that's part of your child's IEP must be followed. In your plan, be sure to include at least the following:

  • Location. If your child's class includes people with mobility issues, the classroom should be on the ground floor.
  • Specific plans for specific issues. "Shelter in place" may be a fine idea for some kinds of emergencies, but for others, it can be a deadly option.
  • Detailed accommodations for your particular child's needs in a variety of emergencies. Lockdown drills are especially challenging for children who can't quickly and easily follow spoken instruction or keep quiet. How will staff communicate with your child? What supports will your child need to keep calm? What happens if your child doesn't comply immediately?
  • Medication and support plans. During an emergency or lockdown, there is no access to the nurse's office or storage locations. How will your child's teacher or aide access your child's medication or other necessary supports? Where will the teacher or aide keep your child's emergency information plan? How will they contact you if necessary?
  • Practice. How often will your child's class practice emergency drills? How will they be prepared for the drills? What will happen if the drills go poorly?

A Word From Verywell

While there's no way to prepare for every possible emergency, basic preparation ahead of time can make a world of difference. The keys to bear in mind in any location include first, having an emergency information form completed, copied, shared, and available and in strategic locations. Then make sure your child has appropriate identification including medical information. Have an emergency kit available which includes medications and comfort items and finally practice your plan.

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