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Fire safety advice for autistic children and adults

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Different reactions to fire

Children and adults with autism and other special needs, may have unexpected reactions to a smoke alarm or a fire. The following information, collated from a variety of sources including the National Autistic Society, aims to help you support children and adults with autism. 

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service is committed to increasing understanding and acceptance of children and adults with autism and other neurodiverse conditions.


What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, and sometimes repetitive behaviours. Each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others live entirely independently.

Home safety visits and other interactions

Communication is key to so much of our work and these tips may help you to interact with an autistic person, whether it’s a child, adult, colleague or friend.

  • Always use their name (if you know it) so that they know you are talking to them
  • Say less and say it slowly
  • Don’t use too many questions, and keep them short
  • Use visual supports such as photographs
  • Be aware of the environment (noisy/crowded/flashing lights) that you are in
  • Avoid using irony, sarcasm, rhetorical questions, ‘sayings’ or exaggeration. For example: Avoid saying just a minute if you will be longer
  • Some autistic children are delayed in their use of language and some autistic adults don’t use speech. In these cases, other methods of communication need to be established. They may use some of the following to communicate with you: 
  1. Gestures
  2. Looking at the object they want, or moving away from the object they fear
  3. Using pictures

In case of fire

Adults with autism are just as likely to hide, similar to children, in a fire situation to get away from the noise and the unexpected situation. So check wardrobes, under beds and behind furniture.

People with autism may resist moving during a fire emergency, so try to reassure and repeat instructions. Assign one carer or family member to be responsible for getting the person with autism out of the home and to a place of safety.

If the individual is presenting with behaviours which cause you to suspect they have an ASD, make your colleagues aware of this, so everyone can be sensitive to the person’s needs.

People with autism may wander off or bolt after rescue. Stay with the person with autism or hand over to another caregiver.

A reaction to the noise of a smoke alarm or a fire can be to run away. When autistic children and adults are in this ‘flight mode’ they may become oblivious to other dangers, such as road traffic or a barrier tape, and run towards a different danger. Make sure the person is supervised during this unsettling time.

Some people with autism do not have a typical range of sensations and may not feel the cold, heat, or pain in a typical manner. They may fail to acknowledge pain. They may show an unusual pain response that could include laughter, humming, singing and removing of clothing.

Sensory Sensitivities

Children and adults with ASD and anxiety may become frightened in response to sensory stimuli. Some individuals with autism have difficulty telling people what’s scaring them, so may show fear with extreme avoidance of a situation. For example, someone might refuse to go to a place after experiencing the noise and confusion of a smoke alarm and fire drill. As a result people with sensory sensitivity:

  • May not like the feel of certain materials (example: a blanket)
  • May be sensitive to smells
  • May even seek out fire
  • May have strong reactions to sirens/flashing lights
  • May not feel pain
  • May not allow you to touch them 

Meltdowns 

Exposure to sensory stimuli may make someone feel completely overwhelmed, and the understandable result can be a meltdown. Meltdown symptoms can include shouting, screaming, crying, and lashing out. If someone is having a meltdown:

  • Give them some time if possible
  • Calmly ask them (or their parent or friend) if they’re OK, but bear in mind they’ll need more time to respond than you might expect.
  • Make space - try to create a quiet, safe space as best you can. Ask people to move along and not to stare, and move away from bright lights or sirens – whatever you can think of to reduce the information overload: try it. 

Some autistic people may show signs of distress before having a meltdown, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘rumble stage’. At this stage, there may still be a chance to prevent a meltdown by helping the person use calming strategies such as putting on headphones and removing potential triggers.

Explore ‘graded exposure’

You may be able to discuss preparing people for when they may hear a smoke alarm and help them to learn a safe response.

For example: you could suggest that a parent or carer records the noise of the smoke alarm on a phone or iPad and plays it back at a low volume. Then over several weeks gradually increase the volume. You could also suggest practising the escape route several times by walking with the person, and then combine the low level noise of the alarm with walking escape routes. Some people find wearing ear defenders useful, so the person has control when they slip them over their ears to reduce the sound level.

This graded exposure may seem counter intuitive, but research indicates that this can be effective for getting over a particular fear, and learning safe behaviour.

Covid-19 considerations:

Some neurodiverse people may find it difficult or even impossible to wear a face covering.Remember that people do not need to wear a face covering if they have a legitimate reason not to. This includes neurodiverse conditions.

Carers may consider wearing face coverings with a see-through panel, if the person they are caring for, seems upset by looking at someone wearing a mask.

Although not legally required, some people may feel more comfortable showing something that says they do not have to wear a face covering. This could be in the form of an exemption card, badge or even a home-made sign. There are various versions available online including the government exemption card template  The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard, which can be bought online or are available free of charge at many supermarkets, train stations and airports, have become widely recognised.

GOV.UK Guidance - Face coverings: when to wear one and how to make your own

Further information for Autistic adults and children

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Latest Update :
19 August 2020
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