Fire Drills

Several months ago I was in a classroom when the school had a fire drill. For different reasons, the drill was a rather traumatic for three young students in the class diagnosed with autism. A similar problem arose when a different school staged an evacuation drill. The experiences helped me understand that some of our friends with autism need individualized instruction to prepare them for group drills or actual emergencies.

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In the case of the fire drill, one student panicked because he did not understand the concept of a drill, so he was firmly convinced that everyone and everything was “going to burn.” Another student understood the concept of a drill, and he understood that there was not an actual fire. That youngster refused to evacuate because it didn’t make sense to him to interrupt the math lesson for a “pretend fire.” The third student apparently equated the walk down the hall to recess, so he ran out to the playground equipment as soon as he cleared the outside doors.

In the case of the evacuation drill, one of the high school students was assigned to a group of students and teachers whose last names started with the letters K, L, and M. She did not know any of the adults in the group, so she simply refused to follow their directions because of her inability to transfer authority to a stranger. Another student ended up in the same group as one of her trusted teachers, but during the evacuation drill she continually asked questions and she grew very agitated during the extended wait before returning to the classroom.

Given those two experiences, I recommend teachers, parents, and other adults teach these five principles to youngsters with autism from the time they are very young.
1. Understanding the difference between a drill and an actual emergency.
2. Learning to follow directions even when the instructions do not seem to make sense.
3. Learning the importance in keeping quiet and attentive during a drill or emergency.
4. Learning importance of waiting patiently e.g. waiting for signal to go inside.
5. Learning to transfer authority to an unfamiliar adult.

Additionally, it would probably be a good to develop individualized contingency plans for fires and other emergencies at home, at school, and other situations. Please feel free to send your ideas and comments about emergency drills. Just send a message to

Note to listeners and readers: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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