Storms can be scary for children and even adults, but autistic kids tend to be hyper-alert and have very reactive nervous systems, which makes them more susceptible to feeling fears intensely and being startled severely.
It’s absolutely cruel to expect autistic kids to regulate their nervous systems and “get over it” because they can’t. The good news is that there’s a huge opportunity to build your relationship with your child and to bond as you process your way through fears together.
Sensory issues can exacerbate anxiety about inclement weather, too. The noise of thunder can be deafening, the violent flashes of lightning and the loud POP! when it strikes a nearby tree can cause even the most even-keeled adult to jump, but for people very sensitive to sudden or loud noise and bright lights, it can be downright terrifying.
I’m teaming up with Autistic meteorologist, JP Kalb, the vlogger behind the YouTube channel, Weathering the Autism Storm, where he tackles topics like budgeting, navigating public transit, and more light-hearted topics, like doing the Beanboozled challenge. We’re going to try and help you help your children tackle those fears.
Recently, I came across an adult asking how to help an autistic child with fear of thunderstorms, or astraphobia, a question I’ve seen come up in several places.
While this post is specifically about storms, the strategies and philosophy can be adapted for other fears.
Take the “scare factor” away with science
Fun fact: one of the earliest pieces of meteorological equipment was called the “tempest prognosticator,” and it looked like a carousel with twelve leeches in bottles. The leeches were thought to be agitated when a storm was coming, and they would shake and move enough to ring a bell.
I’m sure that some of the skeptics’ ancestors were there to scream PSEUDOSCIENCE! for that one, totally murdering the artful finesse of weather forecasting, but I digress. Home experiments are fun. Science is a journey more than a destination.
If your child is autistic, understanding the logic and science of anything is likely to greatly reduce anxiety around it. Having a plan in place to manage anything fearful for the next time will also dramatically reduce anxiety.
The sound of knowledge dropping
If your Autistic child is afraid of something, teach them the science behind it. For thunder, learn about different types: peals, claps, rolls, and rumbles. Buy a decibel meter to measure the volume, which can give clues to how far away it is.
JP Kalb says this decibel meter, for only $17, should be fine for measuring thunder.
You can use a stopwatch to measure the time between visible lightning and the sound of thunder to help you figure out how far away the distance is.
Don’t trick Autistic kids. Ever.
I remember when I was a young child, people told me that thunder was G-d’s way of letting me know he was angry at me.
Don’t do that to Autistic kids. Ever.
Every time a storm came, for years, I would obsess over what I had done to deserve such anger, and I started developing fears of making mistakes and even experiencing emotions. I was trying to understand the pattern in my behavior against the pattern of thunderstorms to learn what I could have done to cause them.
It won’t be received as fun or funny if you do this to autistic kids, and it may cause them to develop OCD trying to police their thoughts and actions in an attempt to avoid angering a punishing deity.
Teach them what thunder is, literally, and don’t make the mistake of leading them to believe that their behaviors can impact thunder– or anything that is out of their control.
Learning to identify types of clouds by sight and feature is a great way to help kids learn to predict storms. The type of cloud associated with thunderstorms is cumulonimbus.
It’s entirely possible that your child is sensitive enough to things like atmospheric pressure to have a sense of when a storm is coming.
Get a barometer to measure the atmospheric pressure. If it’s falling, a storm is likely coming. JP Kalb says this one, for just under $20, would work fine. If you’re feeling industrious, he says simple DIY is great for making your own from things you probably already have:
Measure the Air’s Moisture
You can also buy a hygrometer, which measures how much moisture is in the air. They can easily be found for under ten dollars online or in hardware stores.
Even without a hygrometer, there are ways to gauge the moisture in the air. Are birds flying lower? This is because the air is heavier due to the humidity.
Even the behavior of sweat is an indication of moisture in the air. If you’re super wet and sticky, then that’s a sign that the air is very humid.
Is there a ring around the moon at night? That means there are cirrus and cirrostratus clouds, which could indicate that a storm is brewing.
Are smells of dirt and earthy smells stronger than usual? That’s because the smells are trapped in the moisture in the air.
The behavior of smoke can also help to gauge moisture. If smoke goes straight up, the air is dry. If it stays low and spreads out, it’s because of heavy moisture in the air.
Look at the Sunrise and Sunset
You have heard the old adage, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning!” There’s actually some truth to that.
If the sky is red in the morning, that’s light filtering through an incoming warm air mass, which may indicate a storm is coming.
Many autistic people have hyperacusis, or a high sensitivity to sound. For them, loud sound can be extremely painful.
Noise cancelling headphones or ear defenders can be great to dampen loud sounds like thunder.
Instead of collecting data on the behavior of kids, collect data on the behavior of weather! Making charts and recording this data can be fun! Autistic kids are always geared towards pattern thinking, and you may learn things about how your child thinks when you visually graph those patterns.
You can buy a Jeffersonian rain gauge for under five dollars, too, to add to your data points. Soon you’ll be able to compare and contrast how much humidity comes before how many inches of rain, and even what the birds were doing before a storm.
You could even get an anemometer to measure the speed of the wind, if you’re so inclined to grow your home weather station!
Autistic Love Language
Not all autistic kids are scared of storms, but all autistic kids need honesty and factual information from the people they trust.
Truth and facts are emotionally secure to us, and you will see how much your relationship with your child deepens as you form a mutual bond around a special interest.
You’ll be amazed at how fast your child learns and how much they love to learn. Learning about storms, and about storm safety, will reduce anxiety around them.
You’ll also be teaching your child that the way to resolve fears is through making the unknown known, through information literacy, and that trust and bonds are built on solving those problems with the right people.
And don’t be surprised if you find yourself becoming a bit obsessed with meteorology! You’ll no longer be wanting to do small talk about the weather, either!
“Unknown” is a temporary and resolvable fear. You’ll also learn how special interests evolve! When you learn about lift, a component of a thunderstorm, that’s Newton’s laws of motion! Add in thrust, and you’re learning rocket science!
You’ll start seeing that special interests aren’t myopic and isolated obsessions, but the epicenter of a creative multiverse that expands and diversifies as it inflates. It is the anchor of a growing, living imaginative ecosphere that provides context for the next passion to build from.
You’ll be loving your child in their language.
Not all autistic kids speak. My child was a late talker. She would sit on my lap at the window every time a storm came, though, and I would narrate. I knew she understood what I was saying.
This was our first conversation, actually. More than just labeling objects, we were actually talking back and forth about a storm we watched from our house’s turret.
Our conversations aren’t always sentences. Those are hard for her right now unless they’re memorized, so I have to do a lot of narrating on a topic with her mostly repeating me. Later, she’ll have the language to put together sentences on the topic.
Regardless of their ability for spoken language, don’t make the mistake of thinking that your child is not capable of understanding complex things.
My four year old recently protested going to bed at night because of the existence of tungsten. It took me a while to realize that she was saying. Tungsten is used as the filament in lightbulbs– which makes darkness irrelevant when you’re not finished playing for the day.
We do a lot of list-building together, verbally, as conversation. I’ll ask, “What are some storm words?” Then we take turns saying things like wind, darker, rain, thunder, clouds, precipitation, wind, etc. or it can be phrases: leaves upside down/ leaves showing their bellies, water is moving, drips in the water, water is rippling, trees are rustling. That might shift to onomatopoeic words associated with storms: boom boom, whooooosh, tic tic tic (rain on the tin roof), sssssssssssssss, pow!, etc.
The Comforts of Learning
Autistic kids generally love to be students. They love facts, and understanding the facts takes the anxiety away from things they’re anxious about.
We do a lot of metacognitive processing out loud: “I notice the air is getting sticky. I wonder if this sticky air and those dark clouds mean that rain is coming. The clouds get darker when there is more water in them, and more ice crystals form, which means that less sunlight is able to get through them.”
You’ll notice that when you slip into the role of educator, and you speak from a genuine place of enchantment and passion, your autistic child will relax, will be more engaged, and will be less anxious with your interaction.
They’re at ease in this role because you’re not trying to change them, to shape them, or to do anything other than inspire their natural curiosity. You’re not speaking with social nuance or emotional bait. They’re not suspicious with your motives when you’re teaching them factually.
This is where I think so many adults miss opportunities with autistic kids– to bond through learning. You can get to know your child at a deep level through what’s implied: that learning together is how we make the world a less scary place by learning its patterns.
JP Kalb, Autistic Meteorologist
Lastly, check out JP Kalb’s video on thunderstorms, and please subscribe to his YouTube channel!