Saturday, 28 February 2015

Aspergers and dealing with natural disasters

Sorry about dropping off the face of the internet for a while, but I do have a good excuse: this just happened where I live.  Of all the excuses to ignore your inbox for a week and a half, I think a category five tropical cyclone crossing the coast directly on top of you is a pretty good one.

I got off very lightly from tropical cyclone Marcia: safe, dry, power and internet back on, missing a chunk of roof but nothing that can't be fixed when the insurance assessors have dealt with the 20,000 other people with chunks out of their roofs who are ahead of me in the queue.

But the whole experience has set me thinking about Aspergers and natural disasters, and how we who often rely on routine and familiarity can cope with having that snatched away.  A lot of my musings are specific to cyclones, because that's what I've just lived through, but I think a lot of it can be applied to other disasters as well. Here's what I think...

Why it's worth thinking about

A natural disaster like a cyclone can cause not just a vast amount of damage and trauma, but disruption, upheaval and interruptions to services we need to get by.  It's worth thinking about the kinds of things that could happen, so you know what to expect and how to prepare.  For instance...
  • In a cyclone you will lose electricity, maybe just for the duration of the storm itself if you're lucky, or maybe for days or weeks.  Phone, internet, and other utilities may be lost for a similar amount of time.
  • You may lose water or water supplies may be restricted to drinking and food preparation only, which may be a problem if you have sensory issues related to being dirty or your own or other people's body odour. 
  • You may have to evacuate, which will bring a whole host of issues relating to unfamiliar surroundings, breaks in routine, communicating with strangers, and being squished in with other people. 
  • If you have a limited diet, your safe foods may not be available due to food shortages or lack of power or gas for refrigeration and cooking.
  • Before, during and after the storm there will be significant disruptions to your usual routine.
  • Cyclones have a habit of happening when the weather is hot and humid, which means you're going to be very uncomfortable in the electricity-free days that follow.
  • There's a risk of having belongings damaged, destroyed or lost, including stim toys, comfort items, precious special-interest-related collections, and medical aids.

Advance preparation

If you live in an area that's prone to cyclones or other natural disasters, you really need to have an emergency kit prepared.  Mine was a mess, and turned out to be missing all sorts of essential stuff like radio batteries.  There are lots of resources to help you put your emergency kit together, but I really like this one - as well as the obvious stuff like torches and a battery powered radio (ahem) it goes into what documents to save, how much water you'll need, and various practical bits of hardware.

As well as your standard emergency kit supplies, it should also contain stuff you're going to need to deal with sensory issues, communication problems or other ASD-related shenanigans.  The sort of stuff you might need:
  • Earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones (and backup batteries for whatever device you're using them with, if possible)
  •  Sunglasses, a hoodie or broad-brimmed hat to block out bright light
  • Weighted blanket, resistance bands, or anything else that helps with deep pressure and sensory input
  • Stim toys, if you use them
  • Pen and paper, PECS cards, or any other communication tools that you use
  • Multiple copies of a personalised autism alert card, if you want something you can give to emergency services workers you have to deal with
  • Battery powered fan, cold packs (live in hope that you might find a way to chill them) or other things to help cool you down if you're overheating
  • Chargers and cables for any devices you use
  • Any medication or medical aids you use, along with a copy of the prescription in case you need a refill or replacement
  • Deodorant, hand sanitiser, or other non-water-dependent hygiene supplies
  • Any diaries, calendars, checklists and flowcharts you use to keep track of time and activities.  Even in the midst of chaos, if you can hang onto simple routines like eating at the same time you usually would, it'll help you feel more in control.
You can also do some homework on your local area, so when when there is a disaster the procedures and places aren't completely unfamiliar.  For instance, you can check out your local flood maps to see if your place is at risk of inundation (your local council website is probably a good place to start) and read up on your local disaster procedure so when you hear that "the district disaster co-ordination centre has been activated" you know what they're talking about.

Also look up your local ABC Local Radio frequency, and tune the radio in your emergency kit to it.  When a disaster strikes all local media will be doing coverage of some sort, but the ABC will be your best bet for up to date, reliable information delivered without hype or hysteria.  Speaking of the radio, you need to be familiar with this noise.  It's not pleasant.  It's not supposed to be.  It's the Standard Emergency Warning Signal, and is played to get your attention before an emergency warning is read.  Years ago it used to be abused to the point it became meaningless, but these days it's only used in genuine emergencies.  So if you hear it, stop whatever you're doing and listen to what comes next.

Before the cyclone

Your emergency kit will include a lot of stuff you use everyday, so when there's a cyclone on the way it's time to make sure everything's charged, working, full and accounted for.  Put the lot where you can find it - probably in whatever room you'll be sheltering in during the storm itself.  Other stuff you could do that you'll thank yourself for later:
  •  Charge every device you own.  Early iPod you never use?  Charge it up and fill it up with songs.  Old laptop with a broken keyboard?  Plug it in.  Digital cameras, gaming controllers, toys of both child and adult variety... make sure everything with a battery is charged, because you don't know how long you'll be without power and what you might need.
  • If you have a prepaid phone or other device, put some extra credit on it.  You don't know when you'll get to top it up again
  • Fill the car up.  Service stations need power to run the pumps.  When the first servo came back online after Marcia, people waited in line three hours or more for a tank of fuel
  • Get cash out.  ATMs also run on power
  • While everyone else is panic buying bread and milk (even people who don't normally eat bread or drink milk - it seems to be a psychological response to a disaster) think about what foods you'll be able to handle, ideally stuff that doesn't need refrigeration, cooking or boiling water.  For me it was muesli bars, tinned spaghetti and barbeque shapes.
  • Don't bother taping your windows.  The official word from the SES is it does nothing.
 You may or may not get much warning.  On Thursday morning Marcia was expected to be a category one or two when it crossed the coast, which to Queenslanders is more an inconvenience than a catastrophe.  But 24 hours later it was a category five and heading straight for us, which is an altogether different proposition.

During the cyclone itself, there's really not much you can do but hunker down, listen to the radio or check the web if you've still got mobile internet access, and wait it out.  It's important to keep listening if you can because depending on your exact location relative to the centre of the cyclone you may or may not experience the calm eye - and you really don't want to think it's over and go outside for a look around, only to realise it was only the eye and now the second half is bearing down on you.

After the cyclone

Usually, the aftermath is worse than the storm itself.  There'll be goodness knows what damage, there'll most likely be no power or other utilities, it'll probably be unbearably hot and humid, and there'll possibly be floods on their way.

Stay calm.

People act differently in times of crisis.  It brings out the best (volunteering and helping others) and worst (stealing generators) in humankind.  Other common reactions I've seen in this and earlier disasters:
  •  Everyone's under enormous stress, so people tend to be snappy, teary, and emotional.  Don't take it personally: it's not you, and it's not them.  It's the cyclone.
  • Because it's hot and generally awful, nobody's sleeping well which further exacerbates the snappiness, teariness, and generally heightened emotions.  Lack of sleep also makes my sensory sensitivity much worse.
  • Because we're tired, emotional and trying to deal with so much complicated stuff, we can have trouble understanding complex ideas we'd normally be able to handle just fine.  You're not stupid or going nuts, it's a stress reaction.
  • There's a need to feel like you're doing something to rebuild, but there's often not a lot you can do, especially if it's still raining, there's no water to clean up with, or you can't get home due to flooding or dangerous roads.  For instance, I ended up spending two days doing random housework like mopping floors (I did at least remember to fill the bathtub, so I had plenty water) because there was nothing I could do about the roof or the other damage, but I couldn't settle to read and there was nothing else to do.
In the immediate aftermath, make sure you're safe and then take a look around and check for damage to your house and belongings.  If there's anything life threatening, like a powerline down, report it immediately.  (That emergency checklist I linked to above includes a reminder to make a record of your utilities' emergency numbers.)  If there's any other damage that needs urgent attention, like a damaged roof that needs a tarp on it to keep water out of the house, call the SES (132 500) or whatever number the radio is giving out for your local disaster co-ordination centre or suchlike.

Ask for help.  There'll be people around who can help with insurance claims, with emergency financial relief if you're tight for funds, with cleaning up and repairs and a trained, sympathetic ear if you need to talk things through.

Try to get back into some sort of routine when you can.  Even if it's just eating or going to bed at the time you usually would, it'll help you feel slightly more in control of the chaos.

As soon as there's the first flicker of power or generators, there'll be places you can recharge your phone or other digital doodads.  Here, we had shopping centres, the library, and various other random shops from a radio station to a cafe to an IT service centre offering free recharging stations.

Allow lots of time to get stuff done.  There might be queues for fuel or ice or food.  You might have to take a longer route than usual to get around due to closed roads.  There might be a great deal of sitting around on hold waiting to talk to an insurance agent.  Normal health and support services will be dealing with an influx of extra people, so regular wait times may well blow out.

Be gentle with yourself.  This stuff's really hard.  But things start getting back to normal surprisingly quickly.  Even though there are local homes that have been effectively destroyed and businesses that'll take years to recover, on the surface at least a degree of normality is coming back here after a week or so.

PS: I sound a bit obsessed with electricity, but a week without it teaches you how reliant on it we really are - it's not just the lights and TV, it's not even the hot water system, the fridge, the fans, being able to boil water and cook food.  It's the traffic lights, the petrol stations, the street lighting, the hospitals' life support systems.  It's not just your computer, it's the ones that run the city's water treatment and telephone exchanges and emergency services and local government.  The whole infrastructure that holds modern life together has taken a hit.  It's a big deal.