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Disaster Communications and Autism Study

  • Autism Institute Staff
Posted on May 22, 2018
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What do families who have children with autism spectrum disorders need to know during emergencies like severe weather events or infectious disease outbreaks? From whom do they want to get information and how? How do teenagers with autism get information during disasters?

These are some of the questions a new Drexel study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aims to answer.

To understand more about the communication that families with autism spectrum disorders need during disasters, the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute’s Outreach Director Jennifer Plumb, DSW is joining forces with Dr. Esther Chernak and a team of researchers at the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at the Dornsife School of Public Health.

In the coming year, the team plans to survey families to learn more about the kind of information they need during different types of disaster scenarios. This information includes who families trust the most to provide information during disasters – such as the government, the media, their doctor, or other sources – as well as how families prefer to get information, whether through TV, radio, social media, email, or the internet.

“Young children and teens with autism process information differently, and they likely need specific information during emergencies, especially during events that might require evacuation, going to a shelter, or taking a shot or vaccine,” says Dr. Chernak. “We know that when emergencies directly affect health, many people want information directly from a health care provider, especially someone who knows them. We also know that many people, especially teens, get a lot of information in general from social media. We need to understand how those channels should be used during emergencies.”

For example, a teenager on the autism spectrum might only hear about a tornado in the area via Facebook, but his mom depends on TV alerts for the same information. Once researchers know how people receive this type of information, they can work on improving access to it for people and families of those with autism.

Because many families prefer to receive information directly from their doctors, therapists, and other providers, the group will reach out to health care and other professionals to see what their capacity is for communicating with their patients and families during emergencies.

In addition to surveys, the research team will conduct in-depth interviews to get more detailed information from families and teens about the information they need during disasters and how they want to receive it. These interviews will occur throughout the spring, summer and fall.

Ultimately, researchers plan to use findings to develop guidelines and recommendations for public safety organizations, emergency response agencies, health care professionals and other providers so that they can make sure people with autism spectrum disorders get the information they need in case of a disaster.

If you’re interested in participating, please send an email to

Posted in research