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Be Prepared: Carry an Autism Survival Kit

backpack on kid

This article was contributed by Wanda Curley, an Autism Resource Specialist in the Triad and mom to a son with autism.

We live in a busy, fast-paced world that can be full of change and surprises. For most of us, planning ahead and being prepared for those last-minute changes is helpful. For individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their caregivers, it is most certainly not just helpful but a MUST! As a parent of a young child on the spectrum, I learned very quickly how important it was to be prepared for any situation. I learned that even short trips around town would be more successful if I had certain items with me in case of emergencies or sudden, unexpected changes. I called this my “autism survival kit.” As my son got older, I learned to adapt the kit to suit his changing needs.

Just as each individual on the spectrum is quite unique, the survival kit for each individual will be quite different as well. So, first of all, what kind of bag works well? I recommend some type of backpack that individuals can carry themselves. When my son was younger, he loved Thomas the Tank Engine, so “Thomas” went with us everywhere. As he has gotten older, he has used just a regular backpack with lots of compartments. Carrying a backpack can provide some needed compression as well as a calming, leveling effect to an individual who is experiencing sensory issues, which is also helpful in times of stress. If your child can pick out his own bag, that is all the better. The more the individual can participate in the process of choosing and then filling this special bag, probably the more helpful it will be.

The basics

Once the perfect bag is chosen, what items are important to consider for inclusion in this emergency kit? If you have a child with food sensitivities and/or allergies, I would recommend that the first things to include would be a water bottle, juice box, and a couple snacks or foods that you know your child can have if you find yourself in a situation where the only available snacks are not permissible because of diet or allergy. Another given for most survival kits, especially for young children, would be a change of clothes. Before our children are toilet-trained, this is probably a no-brainer, but even after that, it is important to remember that a drink spill or stain from an ice cream cone can cause issues for our folks that could well be avoided by a little forethought.

For long waits

Next, consider your child’s sensory needs and where you might find yourself during any given day. If you’re going to a mall or somewhere that could be loud, consider headphones, ear plugs, or your child’s iPod with favorite music if he/she might need to “tune out” from whatever is going on in the environment. For individuals who tend to fidget and have trouble waiting, consider items such as small weighted lap pads, fidget toys, small books, or any other “comfort items” that your child loves. IPads or electronics are beloved by so many of our loved ones on the spectrum, so these can be great items to include. However, for any electronics be sure you have LOTS OF BATTERIES or some type of charger for long wait times. When my son was younger, one of his favorite items for unexpected waits was a little photo album full of pictures of family members, pets, favorite things, etc. This was especially great for working on speech/communication goals when we were “stuck” in an unexpected wait situation.

If you’re stumped and not sure what to include, ask your occupational therapist to offer some suggestions. Try to think of items that can hold your child’s attention for extended times. You will want to include things that are familiar and comforting to your child, yet you might also look for some items to provide a new challenge. Consider his/her triggers and what helps them to cope; those items may be some of the best things to include. As much as possible, include items that you have duplicates of, as it is much easier for this to be a bag that stays packed and ready to go in a minute’s notice.

Include identification information

Finally, you might want to consider some type of luggage tag or identification. You could include a family photo, contact information for emergencies, and information on triggers or helpful hints on your child in case of separation.

If you are like me and wind up packing too much at times, consider having two bags – one for you and one for your child. This will also help you control more closely what is going into your child’s bag for immediate access.

Let’s face it, we cannot always avoid overwhelming and upsetting situations for our kids. But I have found that with this easy survival kit, I can “buy some time” before a meltdown. As a parent, you are your child’s best advocate and know better than anyone what helps and comforts him or her most. For the individual with ASD, just knowing that he/she has a survival kit of necessities and comfort items may go a long way in reducing stress and anxiety in unfamiliar or unexpected situations. The more smooth and uncomplicated experiences we are able to have out in the community, the happier both the individual and caregiver will be. It’s a win-win situation, so don’t forget to plan ahead and BE PREPARED!

Wanda Curley can be reached at 336-333-0197, ext. 1412, or wcurley@autismsociety-nc.org.

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