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How to meet the needs of a Special Needs adult/child in an emergency evacuation


For those living in the Houston area, they know all too well the looming threat of hurricanes during the months of June to November. Many know the drill: flashlights, water, canned goods, manual can openers, etc. However, when it comes to Special Needs individuals the hurricane preparedness list runs broader and longer.

“Because special needs individuals process differently, parents and guardians, also need to think differently about how to plan and prepare during such emergencies,” Rachel Jelks said, Executive Director of TEAM Abilities. “We compiled a list of 11 additional steps that can be added to the traditional ‘necessities’ list.”

Jelks knows what she is talking about when it comes to serving special needs individuals. TEAM Abilities, an acronym for Together Everyone Achieves More, serves low- to high-functioning special needs adults through Day Hab programs and Group Home care. The agency has two day habilitation locations in Montgomery and Harris county and seven group homes in the Spring/Woodlands area.

Jelks shared, “For our Team Members we make sure that we prepare items such as Sensory Toolkits that they can take along with them in case of evacuation. This way they have the tactile items needed to feel focused and safe as they flee to a new location. Many of our special needs members have special dietary requirements so we make sure to plan meals ahead and pack the meal in a cooler in case of a power outage or evacuation. No matter what, we will have that members food or formula needs on hand.”

The TEAM Abilities 11-Step Preparedness Plan consists of:

  1. Rehearsing
  2. Make a list of Necessities
  3. Plan Meals
  4. Comfort Items
  5. Remain Calm and Confident
  6. Pattern Interrupt
  7. Give them a job
  8. Sensory Toolkit
  9. Curiosity
  10. Low-tech Fun
  11. Positive Attitude


Rehearsing: Take special needs individuals in the car during high-traffic times so that they know what traffic feels like. During past hurricanes, freeways were jammed shut. Kids had a very difficult time understanding what was happening.

Necessities: It is important to make a long list of necessities and then begin packing certain items like prescription drugs in baggies so they are easy to get to as well as being protected. Make a list now so when the threat of a hurricane is approaching the list is already completed.

Plan Meals: As mentioned, some individuals have special dietary requirements and in case of a power outage or evacuation, a parent might not be guaranteed a store will be available with what they need. Pack a cooler of meals for a day or two just to get by.

Comfort Items: A child/adult might need a certain favorite stuffed animal, a video game (which helps them to focus and relax), or a blanket. Be sure to put these items on the Necessities list because these items can be easily forgotten.

Remain Calm and Confident: Special needs individuals take their cues from a parent or guardian. If a parent is visibly upset or anxious it is likely a special needs child/adult will take on those emotions.

Pattern Interrupts: Special needs individuals are creatures of routine. They know Tuesday is pancake breakfast and Thursdays they eat tacos. Before the storm it is important to interrupt that pattern and talk about why they are having cereal on pancake day. This helps the special needs individual to better understand and to be flexible. Likely, they won’t like it, but it is necessary for everyone to get along during the potential crisis.

Give Them a Job: Put the child/adult in charge of something like carrying the Sensory Toolkit or to make certain they have their favorite stuffed animal. This helps them to feel more part of the solution instead of just standing by while everyone works.

Sensory Toolkit: Packing a bag of sensory items ensures the special needs child/adult can better cope in an emergency. One can pack a bag of video games with back-up batteries and sensory items like balls which any discount store sells. Soft, furry, fluffy objects are the objective or items that one would need to focus on intently. Include headphones to block out the noise of thunder, chattering, music etc. to help calm them whether in the car or in an evacuation shelter.

Curiosity: High winds can sound scary and so can hard pelting rain. Safely involve the child/adult by taking them outside to feel what high winds feel like and how rain or even sleet can feel. This takes the mystery out of the weather event. Of course, never take a child/adult out in weather when lightening is present.

Low-Tech Fun: Whether the family has evacuated or is staying home, it is good to have some low-tech fun that does not require batteries or electricity like card games, board games etc. Time to unplug and enjoy some family time!

Positive Attitude: By having a positive attitude or including humor in the situation helps to make everyone in the house feel better. Yes, emergencies are stressful so the parent/guardian needs to take it upon themselves to lead the family in a light and positive way. It can be done!

For more information on TEAM Abilities call 832-965-5549 or go to

Photos: TEAM Abilities Sensory Toolkit with items showing how to help special needs children/adults feel safe, focused and calm.

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