ASD Crisis Management and the Public Schools 

 Thoughts, Recommendations and Practices 

April 7, 2005…This is a day I will never forget — one of the worst in my nearly two and a half decade career in public education as a teacher and administrator.

On a bright, crisp April morning I was an administrator at an elementary school in Maryland. We were housed in temporary facilities while a building renovation was being completed. Just as the busses began to arrive, the shooting started and chaos ensued. My worst fears as a school administrator were realized as I choked back my own greatest fear — a school involved shooting.

When it was finished, we were fortunate that no students or staff were injured. It could have been so much worse, but a lesson I know to be true was certainly reinforced — You can never be too prepared. This was the case with a truly outstanding staff who took to heart their training that we practiced often, not knowing that all of that serious work would be put to the test. With regard to our ASD students, we made a number of plans, and practiced them intently for all manner of emergencies — Fires, Tornados and Rough weather…and a lockdown with an active shooter.

For those familiar with the ASD community, unplanned events are very difficult for the autistic to transition in and out of, and without specific practice, training and constant support and reinforcement a very bad situation can get much worse. That is due to the fact that ASD students tend to “Bolt” (Just what it means — to run, but not because they are necessarily afraid of the incident, but more that they are unable to cope or respond to all of the changes that they become overwhelmed, hence they run) and with that knowledge and the knowledge of our students, we planned and practiced specifically for the worst.

There were a lot of lessons learned that day, but with regard to crisis planning and the ASD community it cannot be stressed enough the need for regular and routine practice. We are no longer in school settings where we can compartmentalize that school violence is random, or only occurs in certain settings. Sandy Hook was one of a number of school shootings/school violence incidents that reinforced the fact that school violence can happen anywhere at any time.

With this in mind, I offer the following tips to my colleagues for consideration and reflection for crisis planning with ASD students, but remember that above all else nothing takes the place of consistent and well thought out planning for these students.

Fire Drills/Practice Drills — Begin by having the special educators and support staff assisting the classroom teachers by preparing ASD students to observe fire drills from a safe distance on the first few practice drills. A picture story/social story with short narratives should be used in preparation for these practice drills, and then used routinely with all crises planning to continually reinforce the concepts. Gradually, move the students closer in subsequent drills and integrate them to the classroom with plenty of support, preparation and reinforcement with the goal of preparing them for a “Live” event. To this end, be sure that plenty of visual aids are prepared and placed in prominent places to serve as visual cues, not only for ASD students but all students. We all know that ASD students are visual learners and we need to consider that in our preparations. This preparation should be mirrored for the other routine drills that are practiced in today’s schools from earthquakes and tornados to the shelter in place/lock down drills. Some key items to consider in this regard are:

  • Anticipating specific changes and planning for them accordingly
  • Considering the structure and setting are likely to change (transitions between classes; schedule changes; weather delays, etc.)
  • Ensure that the unique needs of students with atypicalities are anticipated in decisions concerning procedures — Children with disabilities generally have specific “triggers”—words, images, sounds, etc.— that signal danger or disruption to their feelings of safety and security. If adults miss these cues, children may escalate their behavior to a point where they completely lose control. It is essential that parents/caregivers and teachers work together to share information about triggers and cues. This is best done on a regular basis, such as during the IEP meeting or a periodic review meeting, rather than in response to a crisis.
  • Provide professional staff development regarding the social-emotional supports needed for all students, and specifically those with special needs
  • Anticipate the use of contingencies/support (and modifications) to accommodate the student’ response to change, noise, and unfamiliar people and events (police/fire/EMS/HAZMAT/etc.)
  • Conduct drills frequently, and incorporate special strategies for students with special needs. Build in staff time to process these experiences with their students
  • Coordinate with community services to ensure adequate supports are provided both during and in the aftermath of the crisis.
  • Consider the possible role of mental health professionals to work alongside school personnel during and after a crisis.
  • Have a plan in place by which parents of children with special needs receive specific information regarding their child’s reaction to the crisis event and supports provided.
  • Always be sure to meet with the parents of students with special needs students to get specifics on how their child may handle a crisis event. This is certainly time consuming, but proved to be invaluable when we went through our crisis event years ago. To that end, parents will want specifics on our crisis plans that we are unable to share, but we can give information about our preparation with their children.

Scott has worked in public education for over two decades, serving as a teacher, lead teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal and working in a central office capacity. Additionally, he is the parent of a child on the spectrum. He has provided trainings for teachers/educators, the hospitality industry, law enforcement and other enterprises that benefit from autism awareness. He is available for speaking engagements and consultations and can be reached at sfowler03@comcast.net or on Twitter at #ScottFo53814984.