School safety drills can be challenging and sometimes even dangerous for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is because, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), drills “often include significant noise, changing or chaotic visual stimuli, and alterations to the everyday schedule.”
These students, however, must be included in drills so that they can develop the skills and knowledge needed for crisis response. It’s common for students with ASD to require more frequent, skills-based practice compared to their peers.
Below is some guidance, based on recommendations from the NASP and other disability specialists, to help schools work with these students and reduce any anxieties or challenges before, during, and after drills.
Preparing for School Safety Drills
Individuals with ASD are required to have individualized education programs (IEP) or 504 plans that include emergency preparedness procedures. Schools must consider the student’s sensory needs, medical requirements, and cognitive ability, among many other things, when developing individualized safety plans. A mental health professional, disability specialist, staff who regularly work with the student, and even first responders should be included in the development and regular review of the plan. It’s important to note that each student will most likely have different needs.
Once the individualized plan is developed, staff can begin preparing the students for drills. The NASP recommends starting with simple exercises, such as using pictures (“social stories”) to teach about drill expectations. These fictional stories demonstrate how students wait, stay quiet, listen to instructions, and perform other skills during emergency response. The discussions and pictures should be developed with school safety and mental health professionals to ensure they are age and developmentally appropriate.
To help students become familiar with the loud sounds of typical emergencies, staff can play recorded noises—like a fire alarm, police siren, or a chaotic hallway of people—gradually at increasing volumes. This allows the student to learn how to cope with any discomfort or anxiety the sounds may cause.
Students must also be able to identify anyone who is there to help during emergencies, such as fire fighters and police officers. One way to do this is to invite first responders into the classroom so that students can become familiar with the uniforms and their presence on campus.
Conducting School Safety Drills
Some students may need gradual exposure to drills. The NASP shares an example for a fire drill. “During the first evacuation drill of the year, the student with ASD may need to start by being outside the building with a supervising adult present before the drill begins.” The student can then observe their peers safely evacuating the building.
“During future evacuation drills, the student with ASD may be able to stand at a school exit and observe as student peers evacuate, joining them as they go.” The goal is to gradually prepare the student to be in the classroom when the drill begins and to participate fully with their peers.
Schools may also consider having separate practice drills for special education classrooms. Because these are performed separate from school-wide drills, staff can take their time and slowly ease the students into changes. For example, they can focus on the logistics of moving the students from their classrooms to outside or simulating a lockdown drill and practicing being quiet in a dark classroom.
Each student must also have a “go kit” with supplies like noise-cancelling headphones, snacks, and sensory fidget items that can help reduce overstimulation. Having a note from their guardian or a picture of something special to them can also help comfort the student during the drill. Several of these kits may be needed if the student moves classrooms during the school day. These kits are also critical in actual emergencies, especially those that result in evacuation and reunification.
Debriefing after School Safety Drills
School staff should ask the students if they have any questions or concerns following every drill or exercise. Staff should also remind students how important it is to stay quiet, listen to adults, and follow directions during drills and actual emergencies.
The NASP notes that some students with ASD can become overly interested after learning about topics during drills. These students may ask for additional information or continuously dwell on the topic. Staff should remind these students that the school is a safe space and detail what staff are doing to make sure everyone stays well.
“Educators can remind students with ASD that learning what to do and practicing what to do in emergency situations are ways to be prepared and protect each other,” the NASP states.
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