Preparing for a Natural Disaster As A Special Needs Family, by Anne Jones

Here on the East Coast, hurricane season is in full swing. This season always brings questions from my children about hurricanes and if they will come our way. Here are ten tips and resources that will hopefully be helpful as you assist your own children to prepare for natural disasters!

1. Have your child learn emergency contact information. This can include their full name and parents’ names and emergency phone number(s). For children who may be nonverbal or have speech delays, this may involve practicing how to find this on a communication device or written down somewhere (for instance, on a laminated card in their backpack or attached to their mobility device). Consider including any important medical or equipment alerts as needed.

2. Have your child learn how to call 9-1-1, if appropriate, or practice how to alert a grown up that they need help. Teaching children about a trusted neighbor or community helpers, such as police officers, firefighters, and EMTs, who can assist them in case of an emergency would also be an important part of the discussion as well. If your child needs additional assistance or may not be prone to understanding danger in an emergency, you may want to have your child help you put up an alert sticker near your home’s entrance to inform providers of the situation. In some areas, you can alert your local police department to the fact that you have a special needs child and that your family may need more assistance in an emergency. Check with your local authorities to find out if this in an option.

3. Share information about the natural disaster(s) based on the individual child. Natural disasters could include tornados, hurricanes, and earthquakes, as well as severe weather, depending on where you live. Consider not only your children’s ages, cognition, and needs, but also their temperaments when talking about disasters and planning for them. Some children may be more sensitive and anxious about these types of situations so keeping that in mind can help them feel prepared without being fearful. Acknowledge your child’s fears and provide reassurance in your discussion. For elementary children, some of our favorite science books including the Let’s Read and Find Out Science series and author Gail Gibbon’s books on science both contain stories on natural disasters and offer information both on causes and safety preparedness. The Red Cross offers videos for children K-6: , and offers online games that may help you approach these topics with your child:

4. Use social stories. Social stories are a great way to talk to your child in an individualized way about natural disasters and what to do. I have used the app, Social Story Creator and Library, to write personalized social stories for my son with special needs. He engages well with the stories since they are recorded in my voice and illustrated with pictures taken with his iPad camera. You can also create your own written social story or use a visual schedule to explain steps if that works best for your child.

5. Where able, involve your child in planning. Your children can help brainstorm any important medications, technology, or equipment that they might need in an emergency and make a plan with you. If your child needs any equipment for medical needs that requires electricity, they may have concerns about a disaster resulting in a power outage. Talk to them about any back-up electricity options you have. If you have not already done so, you can reach out to local power services in your area to see if there is an option to be considered “priority” for power restoration in case of an outage.

6. Put together an emergency kit with your child. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests turning the activity of making an emergency kit into a family “treasure hunt.” Along the way, talk to your child about why you are adding each item. If there is anything you don’t want in the kit that would be important to remember in an emergency (i.e., medications), keep a list in the kit of last- minute items you need to grab. The CDC offers a checklist for families with children with special healthcare needs that may be helpful:

7. Designate a tornado shelter spot in your home. Talk to your child about where you would go in case of a tornado, and you can even set up a tornado sign to help them remember. If it is an unusual spot (a bathtub or closet in lieu of a basement), practice having your child hang out in there while doing something fun, so they feel comfortable sitting in that spot. It may turn out to be a memorable experience! My kids still talk about the time I let them eat lunch in the bathtub!

8. Point out important locations in their community when applicable. If you live near a hurricane evacuation route, point out the marked signs to show your child where you would drive if you needed to evacuate. If there is a need to shelter somewhere during a hurricane, point out the shelter location to your child or show them a picture. While your child will not be driving themselves there, it may ease anxieties to know that you know exactly where to go, and they can “help” you remember the way.

9. Partner with your child’s school as you are able. If your child attends public or private school, they will likely have practice drills during the year to prepare for natural disasters. Talk to your school ahead of time and see if they will give you advanced notice of when these drills will occur. This will allow you to talk to your child ahead of time, so your child better understands what they are doing and why.

10. Include spiritual items in your kit to comfort your child. Are there are favorite bible verses or prayers that your child likes to pray? Holy water, small statues, rosary beads, or holy cards with images of Jesus and the saints may also bring peace. One of my children’s favorite items to hang on to when he is worried is a holding cross. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has a nice prayer for protection you could include as well:

For more ideas, be sure to check out the Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s website:

I would love to hear from you what tips and resources have worked well in preparing your children for natural disasters! Be sure to share in the comments below.

Anne Jones is a Catholic wife and mom of five, one of whom has a rare genetic condition. While she hails from the Badger State, she currently loves living in the South (minus the snakes!). She enjoys learning more about the Catholic Faith, volunteering, reading, and attempting to grow things in her garden. She is grateful for the opportunity to connect with and learn from other Catholic families with children with special needs.

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