Fire alarms: what if you have autism?

We hear fire alarms activate every day. It’s vital for the early detection of fire and the evacuation process. The sound of the fire alarm can reach deafening levels. Not such a problem for me and you. But what if you have autism, asks IFSM Council member, Andrew Slater, who has recently done some research into this subject as it is one which is very close to his heart as he has two autistic sons.

What is autism?

Autism spectrum conditions are lifelong developmental differences that affect how people communicate and interact with the world.

Each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. Some people with autism may require significant support in their daily lives, while others live entirely independently.

One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK. These figures just show how likely it is that you will meet and may need to support autistic people.

There is some great advice from many different sources but two stood out for me and I would like to share them with you and thank them for all they are doing to help with autism in fire safety.

The first is from East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service. The second is from Rising Star Sonny White. Sonny has been a Finalist in the Aico Community Awards this year in the Rising Star Category and was also “One to Watch” in the recent IFSEC Global list for 2022.

Fire safety advice for autistic children and adults

Children and adults on the autistic spectrum and with other special needs may have unexpected reactions to a smoke alarm or a fire. The following information, collated from a variety of sources including the National Autistic Society, aims to help you support autistic children and adults.

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service is committed to increasing the understanding and acceptance of children and adults with autism and other neurodiverse conditions.

Home safety visits and other interactions

Communication is key to so much of the work of the fire and rescue service. These tips may help you to interact with an autistic person, whether it’s a child, adult, colleague or friend.

  • Always use their name (if you know it) when you start to address them so that they know you are talking to them
  • Say less and say it slowly
  • Provide one instruction at a time, so that the person is not overwhelmed with information
  • Don’t use too many questions, and keep them short
  • Use visual supports such as photographs. Even if the child or adult is very good at communicating verbally, the use of visual supports can help support understanding. Autistic people are often very good at processing visual information and prefer this when communicating. For example, use maps, diagrams, flowcharts, lists, etc…
  • Be aware of the environment (noisy/crowded/flashing lights) that you are in. Also be aware if anything might happen occasionally whilst you are with them, such as fast movements or bells used for start/end of sessions, announcements over a loudspeaker.
  • Avoid using irony, sarcasm, rhetorical questions, ‘sayings’ or exaggeration. For example: Avoid saying just a minute if you will be longer.

Some autistic children are delayed in their use of language and some autistic adults don’t use speech. In these cases, other methods of communication need to be established. A parent or carer or advocate can support you in identifying the best way for communicating with the person.

Autistic children and adults may use some of the following to communicate with you:

  • Gestures
  • Looking at the object they want, or moving away from the object they fear
  • Using pictures.

Autistic children and adults often experience high levels of anxiety, especially in unfamiliar situations and when meeting someone for the first time. Consider preparing the family for your visit by sending information about yourself, including a photo, in advance. If this is not possible, ensure during the visit that you are giving the autistic person time and the interaction is led by their preferences.

In case of fire

Autistic adults are just as likely to hide, like children, in a fire situation to get away from the noise and the unexpected situation. So, check wardrobes, under beds and behind furniture.

Autistic people may resist moving during a fire emergency, so try to reassure and repeat instructions. Describe the emergency procedure/escape plan in advance if possible, using a step-by-step approach. Assign one carer or family member to be responsible for getting the person with autism out of the home and to a place of safety.

If the individual is presenting with behaviours that cause you to suspect they have an autism, make your colleagues/friends aware of this, so everyone can be sensitive to the person’s needs.

Autistic adults and children may wander off or bolt after rescue. Stay with the person with autism or hand over to another caregiver or advocate.

A reaction to the noise of a smoke alarm or a fire can be to run away. When autistic children and adults are in this ‘flight mode’ they may become oblivious to other dangers, such as road traffic or a barrier tape, and run towards a different danger. Make sure the person is supervised during this unsettling time.

Sensory sensitivities

Children and adults with autism and anxiety may become frightened in response to sensory stimuli. They may feel overwhelmed due to sensory overload. This may manifest itself in different ways such as repetitive behaviour such as rocking, or repeating words.

Autistic adults and children may not have a typical range of sensations and may not feel the cold, heat, or pain in a typical manner. They may fail to acknowledge pain. They may show an unusual pain response that could include laughter, humming, singing and removing of clothing.

Children and adults with autism and anxiety may become frightened in response to sensory stimuli. Some individuals with autism have difficulty telling people what’s scaring them, so may show fear with extreme avoidance of a situation. For example, someone might refuse to go to a place after experiencing the noise and confusion of a smoke alarm and fire drill. As a result people with sensory sensitivity:

  • May not like the feel of certain materials (example: a blanket)
  • May be sensitive to smells
  • May even seek out fire
  • May have strong reactions to sirens/flashing lights
  • May not feel pain
  • May not allow you to touch them

Meltdowns and shutdowns

Exposure to sensory stimuli may make someone feel completely overwhelmed, and the understandable result can be a meltdown. Meltdown symptoms can include shouting, screaming, crying, and lashing out.

Shutdowns are also caused by sensory overload and anxiety and during these times the person becomes still, and unable to communicate or move (‘freeze’ situation).

The strategies below can help if someone is having a meltdown or a shutdown:

  • Provide reassurance about the situation.
  • Always ask the parent, carer or advocate if there is anything you can do to They will know the best thing to do during this difficult time.
  • Not all calming strategies work all the time. Some people have a range of strategies that work in different situations, but sometimes they don’t suit how the person is feeling at that time.
  • Make space – try to create a quiet, safe space as best you can. Ask people to move along and not to stare and move away from bright lights or sirens – whatever you can think of to reduce the information overload.

Some autistic people may show signs of distress before having a meltdown, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘rumble stage’. At this stage, there may still be a chance to prevent a meltdown by helping the person use calming strategies such as putting on headphones and removing potential triggers.

Explore ‘graded exposure’

You may be able to discuss preparing people for when they may hear a smoke alarm and help them to learn a safe response.

For example, you could suggest that a parent or carer records the noise of the smoke alarm on a phone or iPad and plays it back at a low volume. However, it is very important not to stress the person out by trying to desensitise them. Then over several weeks gradually increase the volume, but again only if the person is not getting distressed.

You could also suggest practising the escape route several times by walking with the person, and then combine the low-level noise of the alarm with walking escape routes. Some people find wearing ear defenders useful, so the person has control when they slip them over their ears to reduce the sound level.

Some people cope better with fire alarms if there is an announcement or a soft noise before the actual alarm. This means that the person can prepare themselves for what is coming up and cope better.

This graded exposure may seem counterintuitive, but research indicates that this can be effective for getting over a particular fear and learning safe behaviour.

A new guidance note has been launched by the Fire Industry Association (FIA) regarding fire alarm considerations for people with sensory sensitivities.

Unveiled at FIREX 2022 at London’s ExCeL by Sonny White and James Jones, FIA Board Member and Managing Director at Vimpex, the guidance note was first initiated by Sonny, a 16-year-old future fire detection and alarms expert.

With his GCSE exams imminent, Sonny presented via a pre­-recorded video message, highlighting the need for fire alarm systems to cater for those with autism or sensory sensitivities, who may panic, hide or freeze when an alarm sounds. “This is the last thing you want in a fire drill,” explained Sonny, “especially if it is a real emergency.” Sonny went on to say that the impact of the alarm on some students with sensory sensitivities could last the rest of the day, causing them to miss out on learning.

In response to this, Sonny- who has built his own fire alarm lab in the garden of his family home – conducted a study of his own school and a special needs school and of others with autism, and looked at the many fire alarm companies and what they had to offer.

His efforts come in the context of 700,000 people in the UK with autism spectrum disorder and suffering from sensory sensitivities to noise and light. The reaction to the fire alarm from some of these students, therefore, potentially impacts upon 1,500 special schools in the UK and on special needs units in mainstream schools and on child and adult day centres, or simply on individuals in mainstream schools or workplaces.

How has the Fire Industry Association responded?

The FIA was first contacted in mid-2021 regarding the suitability of fire alarm warnings in special schools by Sonny, who believed the topic had not been fully addressed in the Code of Practice for fire detection and fire alarm systems – BS 589-1.

It was highlighted that while BS 5839-1 addresses the needs of those who have a hearing impairment and those with photosensitive epilepsy, the code does not address the needs of those with other sensory sensitivities who may not behave as designers anticipate during an evacuation.

A special interest group was consequently convened by the FIA to develop a guidance document to cover situations where fire alarm warnings are intended for people with sensory sensitives. The group consisted of people with a personal interest and experience in the matter, as well as experts in the fields of disability and fire safety, to ensure needs of individuals with sensory sensitivities could be better met.

The document is intended to provide guidance for those involved in the specification, design and application of fire alarm systems in premises where occupants have sensory sensitivities.

It aims to identify the considerations that should be taken into account, but does not give recommendations for specific solutions, which should “always be subject to a risk assessment by competent persons”.

Alternative solutions may include voice alarms (as part of a public address systems), Visual Beacon (BID) alarms in certain areas, or vibrating paging systems – though more detail is provided in the guidance document for how such solutions may be incorporated.

On the lighting front, which can be equally disturbing, the guidance note suggests using VIDS – Visual Indicating Devices – as opposed to VADS – Visual Alarm Device, which are very bright.

VIDS cannot be used as a standalone alarm system, of course, whereas VADS can.

Further information for Autistic adults and children can be found below.

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