The Fire Drill Freak Out

By Mary Beth Collins


Making a Routine Safety Procedure (that is anything but routine) Successful

During my school years as a student, fire drills were a welcomed break from the daily routine. The surprise of the loud, unexpected noise would make us gasp, jump out of our seats, and giggle. We’d shuffle down the halls toward the exit doors, without incident. Wedd wait at our assigned location in the schoolyard, and enjoy the freedom of being outside and breathing the fresh air until the “all clear” bell sounded.

For most students, the high-pitched intermittent blast of the fire alarm is simply a minor, temporary irritant. But it is anything but “simple” to stu-dents who struggle with challenges like auditory sensitivity, schedule rigidity and/or anxiety, for whom this routine school safety procedure can become a complicated and, oftentimes, painful ordeal.

Auditory over-responsiveness, a subtype of Sensory Processing Disor-der (SPD), presents itself as atypical sensitivity to certain sound frequencies or volume, as well as difficulty hearing auditory details, like a teacher shouting instructions while the fire alarm is sounding off. Even without the SPD diagnosis, many children with an Au-tism Spectrum Disorder have an over-responsive, or over-sensitive, reaction to loud and unexpected noise. There’s a host of ways these children may re-spond to a fire alarm: Matthew covers his ears and hides under his desk in the fetal position. Beth cries while rocking in her chair. James screams and then bolts toward the door, pushing and hurting several people in his path. Although these are typical self-protective and self-regulating behav-iors, students can endanger themselves or the rest of the class.

Challenges with fire drills can esca-late over time if left unattended. Once children experience the pain and fright of their first surprise fire drill, it is likely that they will develop anxieties resulting from an inability to predict when the next fire drill will take place. The ongoing fear of an impending fire drill can challenge a student’s attentiveness in class, as his/her mind is focused on the next drill rather than the lesson being taught, or the strategies needed to maintain appropriate behaviors in the class-room. When the next fire drill takes place, it could very well be that a tan-trum is the explosion of the mount-ing stress.

An Effective Drill Prepares Everyone for a Real Occurrence

Can your child manage – or be managed – to stay safe in a true emergency? Without effective prepa-ration, a student with autism could suffer injury or death due to elope-ment or tantrums in the middle of a true fire evacuation. Sensory and rigidity issues can make a fire alarm process challenging and stressful, but can make a real event tragic. Realiz-ing the ultimate importance of a fire drill, father Derik has continued working with his child: “It is true that many autistic children have sen-sory issues that may be difficult to cope with. However, we have always favored a desensitizing approach in dealing with them with near perfect results. One catch… it takes time. In fact, time  consistency can over-come almost anything.”

Outbursts Sometimes Result in Academic Disciplinary Measures or Litigation

It is unfortunate to see a child struggling with auditory distress, anxiety or a disrupted routine. But when that response includes a tantrum or blatant aggression, the school must balance protection of the student with protection of the student body. Sometimes behavior will result in detention, suspension, or at times a call to police.

A recent Wrightslaw article, “When Schools Have Children Arrested for School-Related Behavior Problems,” evidences that police involvement is commonplace. Peter Wright, Esq., explains that the best thing that can be done is to use the outburst and result-ing disciplinary action to bring the fo-cus back to the quality of the IEP or 504, and improve it in the best interests of the student. “When a child with a disability is arrested for school-related behavior, this is an excellent opportunity to use the power of the juvenile court to force the school district to implement a good plan for the child – and have the Court monitor the school’s progress.”

Educators who have struggled with these challenges agree. “In order to be proactive, an IEP objective providing support during emergencies (i.e. fire alarms) is always in the best interest of the child,” says Kathleen Herron, NBCT, ECG, a teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools. “This kind of objective ensures one-on-one support as this child learns the best way to handle himself during an emergency.”

Sally Fite Stanfield, an education attorney, encourages IEP teams to develop an effective safety plan that includes goals and supple-mentary aids and services. “The IEP team must consider, among many fac-tors, the student’s cognitive ability, sensory needs, mobility, independence and ability to manage emotions and behaviors in a less structured situation when time is a factor. At least as often as we review the IEP, the safety plan can and should be revised as need be.”

Building Bridges for Autism’s Dawn Yeselavage, M.Ed., suggests:

1) Make sure your child’s teacher knows exactly when each fire drill will occur during the school year. Ask for the schedule.

2) Have your child’s teacher go over the fire drill rules with your child so he knows what is expected. A social story can be written to explain fire drill pro-cedures to your child.

3) The day of the fire drill, make sure the rules are discussed, practice exactly what is expected, and model for the children. Have a “pretend” fire drill for the entire class. When writing the “rules,” you can write them out in a task analysis form with pictures.

4) If the child is extremely afraid of the fire drill, have the child go outside before the alarm goes off. The child can watch the other children come out of the building and see what the process is for the school building.

5) Each month, gradually increase your expectations. For the second fire drill, have the child stand by the door to go outside with headphones on his ears. Once the alarm goes off, the child can immediately exit the building. (Make sure you are discussing the fire drill on a weekly basis and role play/model if needed.)

6) The next month, the child can stand by the door to go outside with-out his headphones on his head.

7) Each month the child can stand a bit further from the door in hopes of getting him to the classroom and walk-ing out with his classmates.

Lindsey Biel, MA OTR/L and co-author of Raising a Sensory Smart Child adds these two important options: noise reducing earplugs or headphones and reducing the sound of the alarm itself with egg crate foam or, if possi-ble, simply lowering the volume.

Desensitizing the child or get-ting him used to the sound of a fire alarm can help reduce anxiety. School-Eaze is a CD that combines sounds that may be scary to kids, with rhythmic songs, lulling kids to a calm state with a song that ex-plains the sound and then intro-duces them to it. The CD includes the sound of a school bell, chang-ing classes, cafeteria, and fire drills.

Weighted vests are also good tools to have on hand, as the deep pressure they offer is very calming to the nervous system. Alternatively, the child can wear his backpack (with books in it) for some of that deep pressure.

Many wonderful social stories created with Boardmaker® Soft-ware are available for FREE.

Ida Zelaya, CHC, President of Sensory Street™ , contributed to this article.

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