Sonoma County Emergency Preparedness for Autism Spectrum: Occupational Therapy Guide

autism emergency checklist occupational therapy


In light of local disaster events such as the Geysers Fire in 2004 and the Sonoma County New Years Flood of 2006, the 2017 Fires, the County would like to encourage individuals, families, and businesses to be prepared for future emergencies.

Families with members who have autism have special needs during an emergency. This article helps families prepare when it comes time to evacuate in Sonoma or Marin.

Preparation for Evacuation


  • In Sonoma, register for emergency alerts and notifications with Nixle
  • Follow Sonoma agencies on Twitter or Facebook for live updates.
  • Purchase a hand-crank radio to tune into AM 740 or AM 810 (Wifi or cell phone towers may not function in an emergency); place this in your emergency to go bag.
  • You may also tune into this station in your car during evacuation.


If possible, teach your child to answer questions about their condition and treatment as soon as they are old enough. This will help ensure that others can care for them in your absence.

Teach your child to recognize and accept help from emergency officials. Make sure your child can recognize emergency officials, such as police, Red Cross, firemen, and others. Help them understand that if they are alone they can go to these people for help. It is important they he/she learns to NOT be afraid and hide from emergency officials.


  • Consider coordinating and planning with a neighbor, relative, or friend who live nearby to help assist in the evacuation effort.
  • Consider using a central meeting place with efficient evacuation routes.
  • Give, obtain, or trade keys with a trusted neighbor or family member

Evacuation Kit

  • Identification and valuable documents (insurance, birth and marriage certificates, and special-needs forms)
  • Phone chargers and cables
  • Portable battery packs for mobile devices
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Cash on hand and credit cards
  • N95 masks (adults and children)
  • Medications – asthma
  • Medical devices (including chargers, batteries, extra replacements kits)
  • First aid kit and instruction manual
  • Pet carriers, leashes, medications, and food
  • Warm blanket
  • Pillows
  • Sleeping bag
  • Bottles of water
  • Glasses or contact lenses
  • Special dietary food and snacks
  • Change of clothes
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Pack any needed Assisted Technology devices and their batteries
  • Entertainment/comfort/familiar items – iPads, books, toys
  • An ID bracelet and autism information cards to explain behaviors to others
  • Duct tape and sharpie – to place labels, visual support or define visible perimeters of your family’s assigned “space” in a communal style shelter.


  • Will you be driving or needing a ride? Be ready to contact the appropriate agency to arrange for your ride when it comes time to evacuate.
  • Routes – plan a route to evacuate, and a back-up if possible.
    • Be familiar with these routes without relying on technology (as GPS may not function)
  • Fill your vehicle with gas/electricity if you have an advanced warning to prepare.
  • Garage door – be familiar with how to open your garage door when there is no electricity, or park your vehicle outside. If you live in an apartment where you may park farther away from your front door, consider how many items you will be carrying to your vehicle.
  • Wheelchair/accessibility – have a backup route if the main exit becomes blocked, e.g. fire or earthquake


  • When it comes time to evacuate –  evacuate! Better safe than sorry.
  • Practice calm – Caregivers should project a calm presence to children and persons with Autism. These individuals may sense your emotional state, which leads to more stress.
    • Breathing – take slow deep breaths in and out, about 3 seconds each.
  • If your loved one with autism has a tendency to wander from safety, make sure you have a multifaceted safety plan in place.

Staying Alert

Look for items that may have broken or been displaced that could cause a hazard, particularly electrical lines.

beware of carbon monoxide poisoning do not barbecues use indoors

Beware of carbon monoxide poisoning. People have died or been poisoned by carbon monoxide in times of disaster due to the use of generators, grills, camp stoves, or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal-burning devices inside the home, basement, garage or camper or even outside near an open window. Never use these devices inside.

Become familiar with the Hi-Lo Siren

Depending on the emergency, the City’s ability to reach you traditional alert and warning tools may be limited. Santa Rosa police cars and fire department vehicles are outfitted with new Hi/Lo sirens, a different sound than traditional sirens, that will only be used to alert residents to evacuate. This European-style, 2-tone siren will only be used in an emergency to alert residents within specific areas of the need to evacuate. If you hear the Hi/Lo, it’s time to go. Watch the brief video below with the sound turned “on” to hear the Hi/Lo siren.

  • Persons with autism may be hypersensitive to sounds, including the Hi-Lo siren.
  • Familiarize your family with the siren tone to help reduce anxiety associated with stress and autism.
  • Hearing these sounds may cause individuals, including children to lose control of their behaviors.
  • While using ear protection is controversial, during an emergency, it may be beneficial to have earplugs on hand.


Call the Red Cross prior to evacuating to ask which shelters accommodate people with special needs. Upon arrival at any shelter, let them know your child has autism and fully explain all of your child’s specific needs.

Closing Thoughts

  • Practice empathy – think of yourself in shoes of the person with autism during an emergency. These situations are stressful by nature, and the uncertainty or unknown of emergencies make these times very difficult.
Jeff is a licensed occupational therapist and lead content creator for OT Dude. He covers all things occupational therapy as well as other topics including healthcare, wellness, mental health, technology, science, sociology, and philosophy. Buy me a Coffee on Venmo.