Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | June 29, 2013

An Autistic’s experiences with Fire Drills

Want a sure-fire* way to make my sort of invisible disability become very VERY visible? That’s right. Be around me when a fire alarm goes off. Being autistic, I have extremely sensitive hearing. I also have a very over-reactive startle reflex. And add to that, a fire alarm means a major, instant break in routine, with absolutely no warning. I also have a very obsessive, pervasive phobia of building fires, stemming from a recurring dream I had as a child. As such, one of the easiest ways to unhinge me for days on end, is being exposed to a fire alarm. I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in this, somehow…

When I was in elementary school, our fire alarm wasn’t a bell. It wasn’t one of those loud blasts. It was this pitch that started deep, then got higher-pitched over the course of about 3 seconds, repeating. My school had horrid pipes, and nearly every time it rained, the fire alarm would go off. I grew up in a fairly rainy place, and we had fire alarms at least 3-4 times per month, sometimes up to7-8 times per day on rainy days. I never got used to them. Fire alarms are unpredictable. I don’t know when it’s going to go off. And then when it does, it’s loud, and AWFUL-sounding. Anything that has that sound, even for just a few seconds, is enough to make my heart jump, my whole body shudder, and my hands smack against my ears. When the fire alarm went off at elementary school, I would end up huddled in a ball crying. Every.Single.Time. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me, so they’d tell me to get up and get in line with everyone else while we walked out of the building. Then they’d yell at me when I couldn’t respond fast enough. That made me cry more. When we’d finally get outside, I would resume my sitting (or crouching), rocking, and hands-over-ears position. No one ever tried to make the situation better. Ever. Every time there was a fire alarm, I couldn’t concentrate right for the rest of the day, sometimes longer. My elementary school fire drill experiences were some of the worst in my life.

By the time I got to Middle School, the fire alarms sounded different. More like the typical beeping sound (not quite the right word, but your typical fire alarm). I learned the routine. I began to be able to just cover my ears and walk outside, where I could stand and rock and self-soothe until the alarm turned off. There wasn’t the instant shut-down effect anymore. But still, fire drills left me drained and unable to function well for several days.

At this point in my life, when a fire alarm goes off, I can successfully navigate my way out of the building without guidance. I can sometimes even do it without clamping my hands over my ears. But the fire alarm still sends my body into shudders. My heart still races for hours afterwards. I still end up curled up outside rocking, with my hands over my ears, hoping beyond hope, that the awful sound will end soon and that it will be ok. And I still can’t deal with things well for the rest of the day, and often several days post-alarm. My brain takes a while to process things. Does this mean I’m “better”? No. It means I’ve developed more effective ways to get myself out of a potentially burning building. I can even remember to grab my laptop and keys and lock the lab door behind me when I leave. It’s taken me 23 years to get that far, and I think it’s a pretty big accomplishment. But it still has an enormous emotional cost. When I’m in my apartment, and a nearby alarm goes off, for a building not even my own, it sends me tail-spinning. Every time I hear a fire alarm in a film, it makes me jolt. And when the fire alarm is in my own building, all bets are off for how long it takes me to relax afterwards.

Fire alarms are often a traumatic experience in a young autistic person’s world. They are definitely a traumatic experience for me. The most important thing to remember, for me, is that the alarm exists for a reason. It is supposed to be startling, because it may save my life. Over the course of my life, I have learned how to curb my anxiety about the alarm for the few minutes in order to leave the building. I haven’t gotten less sensitive. I haven’t “cured” my fear of fire alarms. I have developed an effective coping mechanism and survival skill. That is the most important part of fire drills. I will never enjoy them (who does, really?) but I can and do survive them and get myself to safety. And that is, after all, the ultimate goal.

—————————————-

*No pun intended, it just came out that way, but I liked the way it sounded.

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Responses

  1. I’m very grateful for the fire drills at school because yesterday I was in the supermarket with my 8yo and 10yo, both autistic, daughters and the fire alarm went off. Dear god the noise! It was enough to short circuit my thinking processes and my girls were cowering to the ground covering their ears.

    Thanks to the school fire drills, I knew the verbal prompts to get them out of the door and we had fun watching the fire engines drive up. The practice with the fire alarms at school meant we didn’t have massive meltdown at the store and I was able to get them away to the fun distraction of fire trucks.

  2. Oh E, I am right with you on this one. At work our fire alarm is tested every week. There is a loud (really loud) announcement before it starts, then the alarm itself is triggered and goes off until the Fire Marshall can walk to the main panel and turn it off, then there is another announcement to inform people the test is complete. The alarm consists of an extremely loud bell and flashing lights that are dotted across the ceiling.

    It is tested once a week, but never at the same time. It is all I can do to keep still in my chair whilst it is happening and even though I have learned to control myself outwardly, it takes me a long time to calm down inside once it is over.

    I understand the need to test fire alarms, I understand the need to perform fire drills, but it is always a very harrowing experience for me and I guess for other people on the spectrum. In the event of an actual fire I would be the first person out of the building, not because of the fire, but so I could escape the sensory blitzkrieg.

  3. I don’t know if you would do this but would you consider writing a blog about getting diagnosed? Please. I just need to know someone’s experience with it. Sorry if you don’t want to.

    • I did, here: https://thethirdglance.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/my-diagnosis-story-part-1-childhood/ and here: https://thethirdglance.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/my-diagnosis-story-part-2-discovery-and-understanding/

      I didn’t undergo the diagnosis process as an adult… there are several other bloggers who did, though. Musings of an Aspie wrote a very inclusive series (18 parts!) that is linked to from this page: http://musingsofanaspie.com/adult-diagnosis/ – It does a great job explaining the process.

      • Thank you very much. The long test that you did that you got 188/200 on one of my teachers asked me to do the same one and I got 200/200. I’m in high school and I am not sure whether or not to talk to my mother about it. I’m just tired of being told I’m a freak. I was much like you in school, and kids haven’t changed their response to eccentricity much.

      • … I read those, and wow, my parents said the exact same things to the school when the school was trying to send me for an evaluation! S can’t have autism, she taught herself to read at 3 and taught herself math at 2! She’s smart! She’s had friends! Etc.

        They did take me to a child psych specializing in mood disorders because they thought I was depressed because I’d have “tantrums” so much and was so introverted, and the child psych referred me to a neuropsych who my parents never followed up with. I’m grateful to the child psych, though, for emphasizing to my parents that introversion isn’t wrong and that they’d make me and them both miserable by trying to “fix” it.

        I never did get formally evaluated, though I’m saving up money to try to change that. The more I read about people who found out as adults, the eerier it feels to me.

        Re: little professor stuff, wanna know what my mother’s nickname was for me back when the monologing was cute rather than trying? She called me her little professor. Which I now find the irony of that hilarious, especially considering her vehemence in refusing to admit the possibility of me being autistic. Oh, you just independently came up with Asperger’s own descriptor, but there’s no chance that I’m autistic. Right.

  4. I had to keep saying to my daughter’s teachers that when the fire drill went off, they needed to grab my daughter’s hand, because she would be standing there screaming with her hands over her ears. She would NOT be moving in an orderly manner.

  5. Ugh, I hate rain-induced fire alarms! Where I am, it’s been a rainy week, and we’ve had at least 2-3 fire alarms a day all week long. 😦

  6. Oh, yes!

    Not only did our fire / smoke alarm go off twice (for three rings each) about 20 minutes ago (I suspect humidity, or dust / pollen from our behind-neighbour cutting his grass), but while I was a security guard at a private girls’ school in Toronto (2003-2010), I mostly had the overnight shift, and there was one night in the summer where the bloody thing went off four times in one night, because the humidity was so bad.

    I’ve never reacted as badly as you (for which, please pardon me, I’m thankful), but it’s shocking, overly loud, and sends my nerves into extreme fight-or-flight if the ringing lasts longer than a minute or so, and / or it happens repetitively (more than three times) in a short period. (So you can imagine how I reacted that night mentioned above, where it took the fire trucks approx. 4-5 minutes to arrive each time, and I had to take them all the way down to the sub-basement on the other side of the building in order for the alarm to be turned off….) I can push my reactions down, and I think the Vit B is really helping with my nervous reactions, but I’m still a bit shaky at the moment, and usually it comes out in problems sleeping, and serious anxiety for quite a while afterwards.

    Hope life in general is treating you well at the moment!

    😐 tagAught

    (P.S. Put up a post on my blog yesterday about bullying, and I’d really appreciate your viewpoint, E!)

  7. Reblogged this on winterdominatrix and commented:
    Aspergers does not go away. Many ‘experts’ are stuck on a press release that stated that people grow out of ASD. This is not the case. It only appears to be ‘gone’ because as ASD people get older, they devise intricate coping mechanisms to hide traits that give them away. I would trade my light sensitivity for audio – but I recall a note that mentioned screaming the first week of fire/tornado drills. I was in a quiet phase and did not talk much. But, screaming was my inital reaction to the drills. The tornado siren would cast an emotional shadow, a forewarning that would build in intensity and wind down only to repeat. It charged everything with an atmosphere of panic and fear that really bad sh*t was coming your way. An actual fire or tornado would not have scared me that bad. Do you have to use a jarring noise that radiates through you body for an alarm? How about a loud -*pong* tornado eminent, seek shelter *pong*? That would be annoying enough to wake me and cause me to vacate my unsafe location.

  8. Sons have always had problems with firedrills, not only the noise but the fact that they come out of nowhere. We were very lucky that the school would give sons a heads-up before a drill, especially if they were lockdowns. Even in college the disability director used to call me before a firedrill or lockdown so the boys would be ready for them.

    Considering they regularly set off the house alarm I am thinking (but of course don’t know for certain) that they are able to process the high level of shrill noise. For them the issue was the surprise more than anything.

  9. My high school’s fire alarms were the loudest ones in our city. It was a long, loud continuous buzzer. To add insult to injury, the main building was pretty much a dump, and had a crappy fire alarm panel that was prone to sometimes setting off the alarms for no reason! The worst time was in my sophomore year one day during lunch. I was already having a rough day, and then the fire alarm suddenly went off (there were four alarm horns in the cafeteria), and I screamed like a little girl and the kids around me began laughing at me and teasing me about it, and then I nearly got suspended from school for my reaction! The alarms are around 100-110 dB. Ouch! (I was even told one teacher once nearly had a heart attack when the alarms went off!)
    It wasn’t just high school where this happened; the elementary school I went to for grades 1-6 did not really know how to handle kids with Aspergers’ Syndrome. In third grade, whenever we’d have a fire drill, I would often wind up in the principal’s office afterward. Then my bratty little brother (who would be going to the same school as me) would tell my parents what happened, and I’d get in even more trouble!

    I certainly do hope both schools get new fire alarms installed very soon to replace those old buzzers (preferably voice-evacuation), so this won’t happen again to another generation.

  10. I’m a young adult (19) with autism, and I’m terrified of fire alarms. There is one right outside my dorm room, and it isn’t even that loud it only gose BWOOP, the problem lies in the smoke detector that is IN my room. When the alarm goes off it emits a loud beep/squeal to the point when I’m crying my eyes out. Now I’m scared to death of sleeping in my dorm room, to the point when I stay up all night in a ball crying and trying to talk to my mother on the phone (who would hang up on me) because of my fears. It negatively affects my grade and my sleep and my mood.

    Any advice?

    • oh man, that is awful! I’m sorry 😦 The first time my dorm’s fire alarm went off, I couldn’t sleep for a week. It made the horrible high-pitched squeal noise. Honestly, the only thing that helped me was time, and the fact that the alarm doesn’t go off that often. I just had to take a deep breath and remind myself that the alarm exists for a reason and as much as I hate that sound, it does serve an important job – if there is a fire, I want it to wake me up in the middle of the night and send me panicking out the doors and down the stairs out of the building. Something you might do to help yourself feel better about that possibility, is make a little “fire alarm bag” that you hang on your bed every night. Keep your computer, your room key, your cell phone (if you don’t charge it overnight like I do with mine – you could also put your phone on top of the bag), and anything else 100% important in it. And a comfort or stim toy. That way if the fire alarm does go off in the middle of the night, all you have to do is grab the bag on your way out the door, and you’ll know you have your important things. That helped me to a sort of safety net of control, so I didn’t feel so scared of the actual fire alarm event.

      Other than that, living in a dorm at college is such a major adjustment, and sometimes it just takes time to deal with these new things.

      Good luck with your situation, I hope it gets better soon! 🙂

    • Ouch! That’s awful of your mom. Mine would just tell me “it’s not the end of the world” and apologize.

  11. My very audio sensitive ASD son attends a special education pre-school at our local elementary and between the fire drills and earthquake drills I thought it was bad enough. Now they have added lockdown drills to the mix – oy. I’m not actually sure what is harder for him, the alarm noise or having to wait patiently in a line outside along with the entire population of elementary kids!

    My 17 y.o. ASD daughter is also extremely noise sensitive, possibly more so than my son. She recently got a part-time job at an ice cream shop. The blender sound drives her INSANE and I don’t know how she handles it, but she does, and manages to still enjoy her job. Coping skills indeed!

    • Wow, congrats to your daughter! That is awesome 🙂 Yes, coping skills indeed. One thing that gets me frustrated oftentimes, is that while I can’t stand certain noises, etc. I have learned to work through and/or around them. I think that is very important. But definitely also important to allow yourself time after to recover. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  12. Read this article here from Campus Security before you firefighters and brothers of grab the pitchforks. http://www.campussafetymagazine.com/article/fire_drills_are_a_waste_of_time

    In addition the article I say that there shouldn’t be any actual alarms unless it’s the real thing so teachers can communicate with students better while it’s happening as that’s the only way students will understand short of holographic fires being displayed!

    Like the article says it should be renamed to a *Fire Evacuation* and be treated like any other evacuation drill. Do we hear explosions during a bomb drill happening? No! So why should we have to put up with the fire alarm during a fire drill?

    I think response times should even be staggered during an evacuation of the school/work place so not everybody is in the hallways at the same time which reduces the panicking to zero as you only have a few groups at a time leaving.

    If possible even during a real fire those closest to the fire threat should be given priority treatment to leave and everybody else follows with determining factors like where the actual alarm was pulled and people’s reports of where the smoke is and those people leave first.

    In short there needs to be ways to reduced the amount of people at any one time that are evacuating especially in older buildings that have narrower hallways and stairwells.

    Prevention is the only cure to panic.

  13. I am also an autistic person. I am currently doing 7th grade but I am a person who hates our school bell. I was getting used to it when it went out of order. Now I don’t know but I’m quite sure a new bell has been ordered. And whats more, they have put an alarm in my school as well (a fire alarm I guess). Day after tomorrow I have to go to school again (after winter vacations) and …

  14. I’m not sure if I have autism or not but jeez, fire alarms are AWFUL. My current school just uses the school bell continuously, so it kind of gently eases me in with a familiar sound. But any other fire alarm freaks me out.

    In my primary school the alarm was absolutely terrifying, I thought. It was loud and threatening sounding and it make me shake and get all jittery for a good few hours afterwards. Nobody else seemed to notice of it or be particularly bothered by it. Same goes for the smoke alarm in my house, if it goes off at night by mistake I jolt upright, start shaking and panic. It takes me a long time to calm myself down enough to get back to sleep, and I get scared that walking under it will set it off… This could all just be because I also, like you, have a fear of building fires, but since I’m pretty sensitive to sound it does make sense that it’s the sound I dislike, and it explains why I’m better able to cope with the school bell as an alarm than a conventional alarm.

    • Heh, using the school bell as a fire alarm? That’s what they do on “The Simpsons!”

  15. I’m in college, and the fire alarms are a huge problem. There’s one in every room that’s just as loud as the ones in the hallways, it’s a piercing wail, there’s bright strobe lights; through muscle memory I can get out the door but I can’t use my hands because they’re glued to my ears until I’m a suitable distance away from the building. This wouldn’t be so bad if I only had regular fire drills to deal with; someone could warn me ahead of time. The problem is, the dipsticks in my building keep setting food on fire when they use the microwave. It’s a wonder we haven’t lost our microwave privilege. I kind of hope we do. I wouldn’t mind eating cold food in exchange for being able to sleep at night.

    • Oof – I’m sorry! The building I work in has a fire alarm like that which physically hurts me to stay inside, and I need to cover my ears. I really hope that your dorm-mates learn how to use the microwave safely soon, for your sake!


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