On August 21st, 2018 Trinidad & Tobago suffered one of the largest earthquakes in our history (6.9 magnitude). The epicentre of the ‘quake, which was recorded in Venezuela, registered a magnitude of 7.3 on the Richter Scale. However, the most catastrophic of all took place in 1776 that measured 7.9 and destroyed St. Joseph.
Experiencing a natural disaster of this magnitude can be very traumatic for anyone, let alone for children/adults who are on the Autism spectrum. I would like to share some ideas and tips on how to prepare in case another earthquake (Or any other natural disaster) hits T&T.
I know for a fact that some people do not like to entertain these kinds of thoughts, but I believe it is important to think and plan ahead so we don’t panic in an emergency situation and we end up making things worse. We need to have a clear mind and plan so we can help ourselves and our children.
Shall we start?
In my experience, children on the spectrum mimic a lot of our own behaviour. So try your best to remain calm and positive so your child does not “feed” from the anxiety you might be experiencing. I know it is easier said than done but the way your react will have a great impact on your child and the way he/she will experience it. Keeping calm can be in itself very reassuring for a child/adult on the spectrum.
CREATE A PLAN
We all know that uncertainty is one of those factors that children on the Autism spectrum do not handle very good and well… earthquakes are unpredictable. Sharing with your children possible scenarios and a family evacuation plan can help your child/adult to know what to expect and what to do and not to do.
Let them know where all the safety tools such as first aid kit, flashlights, matches, and so forth are located. Allow your child to be curious and get involved.
Now, I understand all of this will depend on how functioning your child is and I know you might also worry that talking about it and explaining this to your child might cause some unnecessary stress- it is completely understandable.
Having said that, think about it in these terms: You can either share with your children a safety plan so they can follow through or they will have to endure the experience, the trauma + anxiety of not knowing what is happening in such emergency and make things even more difficult.
Let your child ask you as many questions as he/she desires and be open to answer any concerns/questions they might have. Keeping the communication line open is extremely important.
Make sure to teach your child one parent’s or relative’s phone number and send a letter to your child’s school on the type of behavior to look for in case of an earthquake (This is particularly helpful if your child attends a mainstream school) and the tips they need to follow in order to assist your child in such event.
Do not be comfortable with just sending the letter, make an appointment with your child’s teacher and principal and go through the procedure together.
CREATE A SOCIAL STORY
For children/adults who are on the lower-end of the spectrum and might not be verbal, you can download pictures that can recreate emergency plans or create a social story/book that can give a step by step tutorial on what to do in the event of an earthquake. Read the booklet together as often as you think is needed. This format can also benefit children/adults who are on the high-end of the spectrum since they are visual learners. Social stories are great teaching tools for individuals with Autism and can help alleviate anxiety and stress.
If your child is not verbal, please consider getting a medical ID bracelet/necklace with your child’s personal information, medications and any other medical condition they might have that can be useful in case of emergency.
The Autism Parents Association of Trinidad & Tobago (APATT) created two social stories that can help you teach your child about earthquakes in T&T. Make sure to click on page 2 for the second story as well. (You can link to their page if you would like to share but please do not copy/paste the stories as your own).
HAVE ALL YOUR MEDICAL RECORDS SAFE
Sometimes when we are in a hurry from one therapist to another, we might misplace or put medical records somewhere that it is not safe- vital information that we might need in case of emergency. Please try to take a day where you can put all your child’s medical records including contact information of all doctors and professionals in a water-proofed folder so in case of an earthquake or any other natural disaster, you can quickly grab it and go.
This is especially important in Trinidad & Tobago where medical records/files are lost all the time!
PREPARE A 72-HOUR KIT
There are many resources available online that can list all the items needed for a 72 hour emergency kit. However, you should adapt it according to your family’s needs.
Let your child help you with the preparations, and again even though you might think it might stress him/her, being prepared for a situation of this magnitude will actually cause him/her to feel safer (Knowing you guys are putting things in place to deal with the unpredictable).
Make sure to have your child’s favourite toys, blanket or items handy. In my case, I know I have to stock up on peanut butter and jelly!
If your child is sensitive to noise, please carry their noise-cancelling headphones. Some years ago, I purchased two that are made specifically for hunting and it has been working quite well. If your child is sensitive to light, make sure to carry their sunglasses.
DRILL, DRILL & DRILL!
As an educator, we do evacuation drills at school many times. Having said that, I realised over the years that sometimes children forget very quickly what to do in situations of emergency, even if we have drilled it a million times! So drilling is an important aspect of anticipating how your child will react and what they might do during an earthquake. So after creating the plan, make sure to drill often so they know what to do.
Let them know in advance that electricity might go off, that the internet might go down and that everyone needs to keep calm so the workers can assess the situation and try to restore services as soon as they are able.
Do not provide any time-frame since doing so, might create an expectation that you might not be able to fulfill.
HOW TO COPE WITH THE AFTERMATH
Every child is different; so they might cope with the aftermath of an earthquake in different ways. Our youngest was scared and cried a little bit. All of them continue talking about the earthquake until now. This is not unique to children on the Autism spectrum; this experience was quite traumatic for a lot of people.
Make sure to check your child’s behavior for possible stressed-related symptoms after an earthquake such as: crying, nightmares, being afraid to go to bed, afraid of darkness, clinging, bed-wetting, regression, mourning for the loss of a favourite item, etc.
What helped my youngest boy was a tight, long hug. The closeness assured him that things are safe now. So don’t be afraid to hug your child as often as needed (If they don’t mind to be hugged/touched and no matter their age). You can also spend extra-time with your child when you put him/her to bed and let them express how they feel (Talking about a traumatic event can be very therapeutic).
If they need to cry, let them cry. Validate their fears and reassure them at all times that things are going to be fine and that you have each other.
I hope this complete guide can help you and your family during an emergency situation.
Stay safe everyone!
IMPORTANT EMERGENCY NUMBERS:
Fire Service: 990
Police Rapid Response: 999
Tobago Emergency Relief: 211
Global Medical Response of T&T (GMRTT): 811
Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) Office: 640-1285
Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) Emergency: 511
MUNICIPAL CORPORATIONS DISASTER MANAGEMENT UNITS:
Diego Martin Regional Corporation: 800-DMRC (3672)
San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation: 800-SLRC (7572)
Arima Borough Corporation: 800-2ABC (2222)
Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation: 800-TPRC (8272)
Port-of-Spain City Corporation: 800-PSCC (7722)
Sangre Grande Regional Corporation: 800-SGRC (7472)
Chaguanas Borough Corporation: 800-DCBC (3222)
Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo Regional Corporation: 800-CTTC (2882)
Mayaro/Rio Claro Regional Corporation: 800-4MRC (4672)
Princes Town Regional Corporation: 800-PTRC (7872)
Point Fortin Borough Corporation: 800-PFCB (7322)
San Fernando City Corporation: 800-SCDU (7238)
Penal/Debe Regional Corporation 800-PDRC (7372)
Siparia Regional Corporation: 800-4SRC (4772).