My son has autism. He also has learning difficulties and no speech. I am not going to lie; everyday is a struggle. He is 9 now and slowly we have learnt strategies that help both him and the rest of the family cope.
We have learnt to use visuals to aid his understanding.
We have strict routines for school mornings and bedtime.
We use ‘first/then’ so he knows that one thing follows another.
We use social stories.
We give him plenty of time to process what is happening and what we are doing.
We let him chose between no more than two things because anything more confuses and stresses him.
We get by day to day. We have screaming and frustrations but by and large we stumble through.
But what happens when an emergency or a crisis happens and you have no time to do any of the above?
Two weeks ago I was driving my car on a very fast road with my son with me. I have been driving for over twenty years and never been involved in an accident. I explain to my son hat was going to happen using words and visuals. I was picking up a family member then we would get his sister from gran’s house and then go home. He screamed at the thought of transitioning from his comfy seat at home with YouTube on his iPad to having to sit in the car. I was patient and gave him time to process. I strapped him in and made sure he was comfortable and then I set off.
It was all going exactly like I had explained to my son in his social story. It was such a simple story with a photo of mums car, a photo of my brother’s house, my mums house, his sister then home. That was how it was all meant to happen.
Except it didn’t.
On the journey home we were unfortunately involved in a major car accident. That wasn’t in the ‘first and then’ or the social story and there was certainly no visual of my smashed up car and inflated air bags!
This is when non verbal autism is serious. In an emergency situation how do you help a child with severe autism and limited understanding cope?
How do I explain he can’t get out of the car when cars are speeding past us at 70 miles per hour? How do I know if he is injured from the crash or even in shock? He just sat there in total silence.
When the paramedic first arrived he asked my 9 year old his name. My son never answered. He asked him his age. Silence. My 9 year old has less language than an average 1 year old and all of a sudden the reality of that crushed my heart. The paramedic then asked me if I had an idea if my son was injured. He can’t even point to parts of his body in the nursery song ‘head shoulders knees and toes’ so how on earth can he say if he is in pain or where?
All three lanes of high speed traffic were halted while my car was pushed over to the hard shoulder for safety. To my son this was wonderful! He thought the car was moving again and I should get in and drive him home. That’s what was in his social story after all!
If I thought getting my son out of the house and into the car an hour earlier had been hard I had no idea! Now I had to get my son out of my smashed up car and into the back of an ambulance. He has no concept of what an ambulance is. He was not for getting out of my car.
Autism is hard. In an emergency autism can be impossible!
I could not suddenly show him visuals. I had no pre-prepared picture story. I could not give him adequate time to process! His life was in danger and sadly I had no choice but to pull him out that car and drag him into that ambulance. I wish he could understand why I had to do that but I don’t think he ever will.
My son is ok. The next day a lot of bruising appeared but thankfully it was all superficial from his seat belt. The real damage though is to his trust and no-one can give me any idea when that will heal, if ever.
While my injuries will heal over time (ligament damage and bruised bones) I can at least understand what happened.
My son with autism has no concept of ‘emergency’ or even ‘different’.
He won’t entertain any social stories now. He just screams when we say ‘first and then’ and he throws away all the visuals we have.
He can not process the fact that an emergency happened and things had to change.
A friend said about the accident ‘thank goodness nothing was broken except the car’.
Sadly the crash broke much more than a vehicle.
An emergency situation broke my son’s ability to trust me and there is no insurance that will cover that.