Monday, September 19, 2022

Fire Preparedness for Individuals with Autism


Visual showing the Autism Center interior at Utah Valley University

Every year, people with autism, and sometimes their family members, are seriously injured or die in fires because they have not mastered fire evacuation skills. Independent evacuation skills are important to maintain safety in the home, at school/work, and in the community. 

The September 26th project was developed after the death, in a housefire, of a prominent autism advocate and her son with severe autism. The UVU Autism center is promoting fire preparedness for individuals with autism in the run-up to September 26th. Here is the link to the 9/26 event with links and information about the annual emergency preparedness checkup for autism and special needs families. (  

Often, children with autism are not required to participate in home or school fire drills because well-meaning adults feel that the drill will be an overwhelming sensory experience or create too much stress. This approach results in people with autism who lack critical skills to protect themselves in the event of an emergency.

Tips to Support Independence for Fire Drills/Fire Evacuation

Individuals with Autism should fully participate in all emergency drills.

  • Parents can provide a letter to their school district indicating that they want their child to fully participate in drills.
  • Fire drill evacuation goals can be written into IEPs.

Practice evacuation WITHOUT sounding the fire alarm until the child is able to successfully leave through the nearest exit and go to a designated meeting place with minimal support

  • Practice drills with the alarm sounding (sound and strobe) until the child is able to independently evacuate and go to a designated meeting place.
  • Designate a meeting place that is safe and secure (for example, a fenced area, or a car/van) to minimize wandering or bolting.

Use prompting and prompt fading, as needed, to support learning

  • Have a preferred item or activity available in the meeting place as a reward for evacuating.
  • Teach a coping skill to help the child tolerate the alarm/strobe while evacuating.
  •  Make sure that the skill is something the child always has access to. For example, teach the child to cover their ears with their hands rather than relying on headphones which may not be readily available in an emergency.
  • Use picture schedules or video models to support learning.

 Visit the local fire station (Consider hosting a Community Day)

  • Provide fire fighters with a personal information sheet for the individual with autism so they can assist in the event of an emergency.
  • Help the person with autism become familiar with fire fighters in full turnout gear so they are comfortable interacting and taking direction in an emergency.

PRACTICE until the individual is able to evacuate independently when an alarm sounds.
PRACTICE at least 4 times a year to maintain evacuation skills.

  • Get support from a qualified professional if you need assistance teaching this skill.
For questions or additional information, contact: The Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism, Utah Valley University, Orem, Utah.