“So the way I understand it is that the harsh winter we had caused the ground to heave, and the water main outside our home broke as a result,” Amanda* said. “What I know is our home was flooded. We had at least two inches of water in the front room and kitchen. It got very close to entering my daughter’s Jaycee’s bedroom. That’s where we have a problem.”
Jaycee, who is almost five, has autism. “We’re still working out how to best support Jaycee as she learns and grows,” Amanda said. “The one area where we really didn’t have much difficulty was, thankfully, night time. Jaycee always went to bed fairly easily, and once she was asleep, she stayed asleep.” The flood changed everything.
“Getting Jaycee to even put on her pajamas has become an absolute battle,” Amanda said. “As for going to bed, you don’t even want to know.” After she eventually falls asleep, there’s no guarantee Jaycee will slumber all night long. “A lot of times she’s waking up very upset, and when I can get her to say anything about why she’s crying, it’s always ‘The water! The water!’ over and over again.”
Understanding How Children Response To Disasters
Having your home flood is an extremely upsetting event, no matter how old you are or whether or not you’re neurotypical. Children often don’t have the ability to understand fully what happened or why it happened. They do, however, know they really didn’t like what they saw, experienced, and felt during the flood event and immediate aftermath, and often become quite anxious about having another flood happen.
The coping mechanisms generally recommended in the disaster response community include increased physical contact and time with your child, spending time with your child calmly explaining what happened in an age-appropriate fashion, and including your child in future disaster response plans so they feel empowered and safe.
When we talk about Westchester disaster response for the autistic and special needs child, the process becomes a little more complex. It’s not always safe to assume that the event triggering a difficult episode has anything at all to do with the disaster; a child who may not be as verbal can have a hard time explaining why they’re upset, even if they know.
Calming your child generally needs to take precedence over getting to the root cause of their upset, at least in the moment. Every family develops its own unique set of calming rituals, including diverting the child with a favorite thing, use of weighted blankets for a feeling of extra security, massage, putting on a pair of noise cancelling headphones, and more. It’s important for the parent or caregiver to remain as calm as possible in the moment.
Work with your child’s support team to address their response to the flooding. This team can include family members, teachers, therapists, and anyone else your child sees regularly. Having a group call or email to discuss how your child is reacting and what the best way to address it may be can help counter the parent’s feelings of isolation and also get all of the adults in the child’s life coordinated in a helpful response.
Every child will manifest their reaction differently; some, like Jaycee, are fine until it’s bedtime, while other children become obsessed with water and flooding and want to talk about nothing else the entire time they’re awake. There’s no timeline for anyone to ‘get over’ a disaster; that being said, making a strong effort to get life back to normal in a timely fashion often helps children deal with the worst of the upset.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the adults in this situation have had a traumatic experience and need support just as much as the children do. Identifying a support team of friends, family, colleagues and coworkers is a pivotal part of a parent’s self-care after a disastrous event like a flood.
*Names changed to protect family privacy