I don’t think prolonged power outages are fun for anyone this time of year. We all need to be prepared by having things like plenty of food and water, flashlights, extra sets of warm clothing and plenty of batteries.
But for anyone with sensory processing differences, there is a whole extra set of challenges that can come into play. If you are the parent of a child with autism, for instance, you may not yet be aware of what all can be problematic if you have not gone through a prolonged power outage with your child. And if you have a family member who is nonverbal or has alexithymia (meaning they have a hard time describing what is going on inside them), it may be hard to know what’s upsetting them during an outage, even if you have been through it before . So let’s walk through some of the key areas that are likely to make an impact…
Any abrupt change in the day is going to be a disruption, and if shifting gears is challenging, this can be really rough. There is likely to be some anxiety. Not being able to continue doing a preferred activity (like online games) can also cause a lot of upset.
TIPS : 1.) Be as patient as you can. Be ready with some ideas of what to do if there is an unexpected outage. If spending time outside is an option, that can be very regulating. Maybe have a special book/treat/activity set aside for this scenario. Knowing in advance the best ways to help your family member feel calm and supported are going to be very useful.
2.) Lean into the positive aspects: For someone who gets easily overwhelmed by fans and loud noises, leaning into the sudden quiet and lack of electronic lights everywhere is a rare experience. Keep your voice low if possible so there aren’t loud, jarring voices cutting through the quiet. Less going on in the sensory realm can be enjoyable and even meditative (at least for a time). If it is a widespread outage and a clear night, there may even be an amazing star full of skies you don’t normally get to see.
Not being able to cook in the usual manner can also be more than a minor inconvenience. If someone has a lot of food intolerances, are the items in your emergency storage things they can eat? Do they have a lot of sugar or things that could trigger further dysregulation.
TIPS: Don’t just think about ‘survival’ food when getting your emergency supplies in place. Have specific food set aside for family members with food sensitivities that will be nourishing and enjoyable to them (to the extent that you can).
LIGHTING CHANGES This is most problematic at night. A lot of flashlights and emergency lanterns use very harsh lights that can trigger migraines or other discomfort. The contrast between total darkness and the erratic beam of the flashlight is very uncomfortable for some.
TIPS: 1.) Experiment with ways to leave a soft light on in the room you are in (like a battery operated lantern). If you can’t switch out the harsh lightbulbs, try to diffuse the light a bit by putting a thin, light colored piece of fabric over the light (avoid anything hot).
2.) If flashlights are problematic, only use them when you absolutely have to. You can try turning them around to diffuse the light more. This lessens the extremely piercing beam of the flashlight that can be such a harsh contrast from total darkness.
3.) Experiment with different lights ahead of time to see if they are well tolerated.
4.) Get out all the things you know you will need at night while there is still daylight (meds, pajamas, etc.) and have those things all in a central location that is easy to access.
Needing to wear additional layers and perhaps different fabrics than usual can be upsetting. This can be especially aggravating if multiple layers must be worn overnight to stay warm and the bulkiness restricts movement and causes discomfort in bed.
TIPS: You can’t eliminate the discomfort of a lot of bulky clothes, but investing in a good base layer (like merino wool) will take you a long way. Merino wool is not itchy like lambswool, but will keep the heat in without making you sweaty. So having it at least against your skin makes a lot of sense. Wear it throughout the season so there is familiarity when it comes time to putting it on and you have already figured out if tags need to be removed for further comfort, etc. While merino is expensive to buy new, there is not usually a markup when you are able to buy it secondhand, so keep your eyes open for it at thrift stores, etc.
GENERATORS ARE FROM HELL
Gasoline or propane generators are incredibly noisy and they smell horrible when they are running. They also pollute the air and cause symptoms in those with respiratory issues. What is background noise to some may be impossible to filter out for those with sensory processing differences.
TIPS: It is a great time to switch to battery operated generators, but be aware that a neighbor’s old-school generator may still be a source of distress for a highly sensitive individual.
A lot of schools these days are doing some kind of emergency drill every month. The idea is to normalize them and have them built into the routine. Often kids with sensory processing needs will be told about it ahead of time to minimize distress.
In a real life situation, the lack of forewarning is unavoidable, so have realistic expectations about the time following and just be as prepared as you can be to make it as comfortable as possible. Try to practice patience. Be stocked up on all your sensory soothers and maybe have some ‘special’ ones for these occasions (like a super comfy blanket you can wear around the shoulders).
Remember that this is may be a challenging time, but that your preparations will go a long way towards minimizing the most challenging aspects of it.