News and Notes from The Johnson Center

Helping Children Cope With Natural Disasters

JCCHD | Tue, August 29, 2017 |

The recent devastation from Hurricane Harvey is a challenge for all who are living through it. For children, a natural disaster can trigger fear and comfort-seeking responses. Older children might look for information, and as they are able to think ahead to what comes next, they might feel helpless. For a child with autism, the chaos surrounding the events can make these feelings can be even bigger. Parents are understandably overwhelmed with the family’s survival and may feel at a loss with how to help their children cope. Here are some tips for helping children during this time of crisis.

- Try to manage your own fears and anxiety. Children are especially keen on the emotions of others, even if they don’t realize it. Their nervous systems are tied to those of their caretakers, so if you are scared, your child feels it and is scared. This is a terrifying situation, so of course you are scared. Do what you can to take care of yourself and manage your own fears, and your child’s will decrease, too.


- Calmly explain to your child what is happening in simple language, validating their emotions, and share with them what steps you are taking to keep the family safe. “The water is coming through the door now. That feels really scary, because you don’t know what is going to happen. I’m scared, too, but I have moved all of the food upstairs and we will stay up there where it is safer.” Even children who are nonverbal benefit from the calm explanation and acknowledgement of feelings.

- Be honest but reassuring. Your child knows something is happening. Denying or downplaying it will decrease their trust in your relationship. Learning more about what is happening can decrease the anxiety that comes with the mind’s what-ifs.

- Keep your child’s normal routine as much as possible. This may be extremely difficult if many of your belongings are destroyed or you’re in a shelter with hundreds or thousands of other people, but try to keep the same meal times, send your child to school if it’s open, and continue your usual bed time routine. Take walks (if it’s safe), play games, and read books in your down time to take your child’s mind off the crisis for a short time.

- Limit media exposure. While parents want to keep on top of the latest information regarding the disaster, young children are unable to put the information they hear through the media into context or know that they may not be in the same danger they see others in.

- Provide opportunities for children to help with planning and making choices about small things that affect them. This increases their sense of control and gives a feeling of empowerment, which is needed in this time of helplessness.

We will share more support resources in the days and weeks to come. If you have any specific questions about caring for the emotional and mental health needs of children affected by the storm, please feel free to reach out to us and we will do our best to provide an answer or a resource that may help you.

Current Resources:

Note: Some of these resources are for all parents and caregivers and some are specific to those with family members who have autism or other disabilities. Special thanks to the Autism Research Institute and Autism Society of Texas for sharing some of these resource links.

- For help identifying and dealing with the stress and trauma of a natural disaster, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has resources and information here.

- The Disaster Distress Helpline offers crisis counseling and information to people of all ages: 1-800-985-5990.

- For those who have been displaced and are in the Austin area, the YWCA offers free support groups and crisis counseling: 512-326-1222.

- For more information about coping for children and teens about a natural disaster, the University of Minnesota and National Association of School Psychologists offer some useful tips on their websites here and here.

- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides links to more resources on the topic for parents here.

- The Red Cross is coordinating relief efforts and has disaster recovery information and lists of open shelters on their website here.

- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is providing relief to the state of Texas and to individuals for disaster recovery. You can find information and apply for financial assistance through FEMA on their website here.

- Find information on the Unlocking Autism Grants for families with children with autism here.

- Information on Disaster Safety for People with Disabilities from the Red Cross can be found here.

- Contact the Texas Health & Human Services here.

- Texas 211 provides a voluntary registry for people who need assistance and evacuation in the case of a hurricane or natural disaster. The public may register year-round. Registry information will be forwarded to local Offices of Emergency Management (OEMs). Local OEMs have the responsibility for coordinating evacuations.

- State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry (STEAR)
STEAR provides citizens with a means to voluntarily register their needs during an emergency response. This registry was developed for people who need assistance during an emergency response, including evacuation assistance during a hurricane response.

- Austin Disaster Relief (aid throughout Texas, not just Austin)

- Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies - Hotline for Harvey: Phone: (800) 626-4959
Website here.

- Portlight
Hotline for Harvey: (800) 626-4959
Website here.
- Autism Speaks Natural Disaster Resource information can be found here.
AutismSpeaks Cares provides financial support for families affected by autism during natural disasters and other catastrophic life events. The grant program helps families to cover costs associated with critical expenses related to the well-being of the family member with autism on a case-by-case basis. Contact the Autism Response Team. Contact by calling 888-288-4762, or en Español 888-772-9050, or by emailing .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

- The ARC of Texas Resource Page can be found here.

We will share more support resources in the days and weeks to come. If you have any specific questions about caring for the emotional and mental health needs of children affected by the storm, please feel free to reach out to us and we will do our best to provide an answer or a resource that may help you.