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Fire Drills and Students with Autism

We all know that our students with autism so often struggle with fire drills.  We often deal with this by warning the students that a drill is coming.  In this post I talk about why I think that's a bad idea and what we can do instead to address the issues and keep students safe.OK, forgive me but this may sound a little like a rant.  I don’t do that often, so I’m due, right? Right.  I want to take a moment and talk a little about children with special needs, and particularly autism, and fire drills.

Many of us know that individuals with autism have particular problems with fire drills for a variety of reasons–the noise, the lights, the change in schedule, the crowded halls…and the list goes on.  Over time I’ve worked with a lot of students who fear fire drills, some to the point where they live in fear that one will occur.  There are a variety of strategies for dealing with the difficulties with fire drills for these students (and I will list some of those resources at the end).  However, what I really want to focus this post on is one solution that many people use–warning the classroom ahead of time that there is going to be a fire drill.  NOOOOOO!

Does that give you an idea of how strongly I feel about this practice??  Yeah, I really don’t like it.  And here’s why.  Warning the classroom (even just the teacher) that there will be a fire drill may make things easier today during the drill.  However, they don’t fulfill the need of a fire drill–which is getting students out of the building when there is a fire–when there will be no warning.  If you know every time there is a fire drill, you are prepared and you won’t be prepared if and when there is a real need to leave the building quickly.

What Can We Do Instead?

So, being a good behavior analyst–if I take one behavior or option away, I need to replace it with something.  What can you do about fire drills?  Prepare students for them by practicing them more frequently.  Here are a couple of ideas.

  1. For the student upset by the sound of the alarm, record the sound of the fire alarm when it goes off.  Then present it to the student with the volume reduced and with some reinforcing activities.  Slowly increase the volume during positive activities so that the student becomes desensitized to the sounds.  If your fire alarm has lights, videotape it and use that instead of an audio recording.
  2. Practice the fire alarm procedures when the halls are clear (when there isn’t an active drill).  Play the recording of the fire alarm and have the students line up and exit the building.  Reinforce their behaviors of exiting quickly and without problem behavior.
  3. Use social stories to remind students of appropriate behaviors.  Positively Autism just featured a free one that you can download and use on the daily autism freebie site.
  4. And finally, Fearless Fire Drills has created a whole program and kit for teaching about fire drills.  It was developed by a great group of educators in Mountain Brook, AL that I have had the opportunity to work with.  They saw a need, created the program and are piloting it now.
I know that fire drills can be difficult, particularly for students with special needs.  However, for all our students, exiting a building in an emergency is a critical life skill.  Taking the time to teach them to do it sooner rather than later will serve them for the rest of their life.  How do you handle fire drills in your school with your students?  Do you have other resources to share?  Please comment!
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