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Researchers create disaster resources for people with autism

students in class

University of East London (UEL) researchers have released an innovative set of materials designed to help people with autism cope better during emergency situations.

The resources include a special autism-focused version of Essex Civil Protection and Emergency Management’s book for children – What if…? – and a graphic novel designed to help emergency responders and others understand how people with autism may experience a disaster situation.

People with autism find change and unpredictability difficult, UEL research fellow Casey Edmonds explained.

“However, there is no emergency preparedness resource in the UK for this group and they may remain vulnerable during disasters and emergencies,” she said. “The What if...? I have autism resources are a very important addition to the emergency preparedness materials available.”

Autism is a developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people, according to the National Autistic Society. People with autism may struggle to make sense of the people and events around them, and this can cause intense anxiety.

UEL collaborated with Essex Civil Protection and Emergency Management on the project. The materials were formally unveiled this week at Essex Fire Service HQ.

The work is part of a three-year UEL project, spearheaded by Professor John Preston of the Cass School of Education and Communities, which looks at the ways people may handle major infrastructure disasters such as electricity blackouts or telecommunications failures. The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

“Through our global research and scenario planning with organisations like (emergency response planners) London Resilience, we have developed models of human behaviour which are being used in policy and practice,” Professor Preston said.

“However, it is important that resources can be used by every member of society, including those with autism,” he continued.

The ECPEM’s What If…? books were created to help children understand how to act in emergency situations. Special care was taken to ensure that What if….? I have autism had a similar look and feel, so autistic youngsters would not feel singled out.

The Infrastructure Failure! How would people with Autism react? graphic novel shows how people with autism may experience emergency situations. Ms Edmonds worked with an autistic artist to produce the piece, which was based on research done by Professor Preston and his team.

Aimed at teenagers with autism, Ms Edmonds said the graphic novel also “acts as an informative guide for emergency responders and others to understand the impact such events have on people with autism”.

The new materials include a special In Case of Emergency (ICE) information card for people with autism.