When a child with autism needs help understanding how to behave in certain social settings, one useful tool is the social story. These stories or packets help students learn necessary skills, preparing them in advance for an event or situation that might occur.
Understanding the importance of fire safety or any type of disaster training is key. These drills will occur while your child is at school, and most schools have at least one drill each month. It is important for students to understand the reason behind the event.
If a fire were to occur in a heavily populated building such as a school, it is important for everyone to know exactly where to go and how to evacuate. Often, the teacher is given a specific route, through a certain door or hallway, and students must be made aware of the plan in advance.
Knowing what might occur and what to expect during an emergency is helpful for everyone. Having a social story in place to help teach the students what behavior is most appropriate during one of these drills is useful and can help keep everyone safe.
Why use a fire drill social story?
Once the loud blaring alarm begins sounding, the bright light flashing incessantly, it is too late to try to give directions or try to calm a student’s fear of what is happening.
Using a social story can help a student of any age to understand the importance of the event and to prepare for the upcoming disruption that may come during class time, without warning.
The use of the social story will provide the child with some understanding of the need for the fire drill, how it works, what visuals and sounds to expect, and what behavior is acceptable during the given event.
Why do children with autism react to sounds?
According to fearof.org, the fear of fire alarms is called Igniterroremophobia. Other names for disorders that deal with intolerance of certain sounds include hyperacusis, misophonia, phonophobia, noise sensitivity and decreased sound tolerance.
Hyperacusis is a hearing disorder whereby sounds may be perceived as very loud, when in fact, they are not, and this can feel painful to the person who has the condition.
Misophonia is considered a neuropsychiatric condition whereby a person will respond in an inappropriately emotional way because of a sound, which usually doesn’t bother others, such as someone chewing or breathing.
Phonophobia is when someone responds in an inappropriately emotional way to a common sound, such as a door closing or a blender whirring, causing the person fear and/or possible panic and may also include fear or concern that something bad could happen in the future.
Noise sensitivity refers to how a person might find a sound to be more annoying or to a greater degree than is considered common. Someone with noise sensitivity might feel threatened by the noises and feel as if these sounds are out of their control.
Decreased sound tolerance (DST) is a preferred term instead of “auditory defensiveness” or “auditory over-responsivity,” and it includes misophonia and phonophobia. While noise sensitivity isn’t included in this term, people with DST might also have an elevated level of noise sensitivity.
People with autism often have hyperacusis, so a fire alarm sound, which is loud to most people, might seem extremely loud and even painful to someone on the spectrum.
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Where might I find a fire drill social story?
Your child might be working with a psychologist or speech pathologist who has some experience writing a social story. They can prepare one of these, including you and your child in the process, as they work with your child to go over the steps necessary to understand and be safe during a fire drill.
They can also help you to write one of these stories, which need to be created in an individualized manner, specific to your child’s needs or to the timing of the upcoming event.
In the case of a fire drill, going over this social story right before school begins would be helpful.
How can I create a fire drill social story?
Carol Gray developed this learning tool in 1990 for use by professionals, parents, and people on the autism spectrum.
According to the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, “How to Write a Social StoryTM,” most times the story is written in the first person so that the child sees the story from their perspective. The verbiage should be communicated in a positive manner, and similar to an article, answering the five “Ws” — who, what, where, when, and why.
Two types of sentences should be used for the story: descriptive and directive.
Descriptive sentences – these state a fact which includes the thoughts and feelings of the student and any others who are in the story. One example might be, “Sometimes I get scared when I hear the loud alarm during a fire drill.”
These descriptive sentences can also show what other people can do to help the student, if necessary. An example of this might be, “If I am upset during the fire drill, my teacher can help me by patting my shoulder as we walk down the hall.”
The descriptive sentences should also help to reassure the student. One example might include, “The fire drill will help me learn to be safe during a fire.”
Directive sentences – these will point out possible responses to the student. An example of this could be, “If the fire drill alarm is too loud, I can raise my hand so my teacher knows this bothers me.”
The directive sentences should also direct the behavior in a gentle way. “I will take deep breaths as I walk down the hall and out the door.”
It is recommended that the stories contain two descriptive sentences for every directive sentence. It is also useful to have the student help in creating the content.
Pictures might help the student to understand the text better, and it is recommended to include some of the student’s interests in the story, configuring it to fit the child’s abilities. It is important to also try to include what will probably occur if the student achieves the targeted goal.
The story should be read to and with the child, several times before the actual fire drill, continuing until they achieve the desired behavior. It is important to check to see if the story was effective enough to achieve that goal. If not, the story might need to be changed, or pictures might need to be added in order to gain the desired outcome.
For an example of a fire drill social story, click here.
What are some ways to help a child with autism prepare for a fire drill?
Here are some helpful hints to prepare for the inevitable drill:
- Introduce the idea of the fire drill using the social story as a reminder of the appropriate behavior during the activity;
- Practice doing the drill numerous times before the actual one;
- If the alarm is a loud sound, record the sound and play it at a lower volume. Use reinforcing activities for when the desired behavior is met, raising the volume slowly while doing the fun activity to lessen the stress created by the sound;
- If the loud sound is accompanied by a bright, flashing light, videotape this, and do the same steps as with the sound recording;
- Have students practice lining up quietly and exiting the building, eventually adding in the recording or video of the alarm and lights and practicing all the steps taken to exit the building;
- Reinforce the positive behavior of exiting quickly without any issues.
For more help with teaching children on the spectrum about fire drills, go to Fearless Fire Drills for a kit and program.
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/social-stories-for-autistic-children/ (this is linked at the beginning to “social story”)
Williams ZJ, He JL, Cascio CJ, Woynaroski TG. A review of decreased sound tolerance in autism: Definitions, phenomenology, and potential mechanisms. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2021 Feb;121:1-17. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.11.030. Epub 2020 Dec 4. PMID: 33285160; PMCID: PMC7855558.