Florida offers its residents hundreds of miles of warm sandy beaches, an abundance of oceans, lakes, and swimming pools to keep cool and thrilling theme parks. But there is a tradeoff to this lush, tropical paradise—hurricanes. And while hurricanes are stressful for anyone living within the cone of trajectory, for individuals with autism, the disruptions in routine and potential for devastating outcomes mean that stress can rival hurricane-force winds.
In the last two months, my seven-year-old autistic son’s entire life has been uprooted. We moved from Orlando to Tampa Bay. In addition to a new home, for him, this also meant a new school, new therapists, new doctors, new friends—new everything. And just as he’s settling into a routine, Ian rips it to shreds.
On Sunday, September 26, 2022, all Floridian’s eyes were on Hurricane Ian as it barreled toward our beloved peninsula. Spaghetti models weren’t in total agreement, but it looked as though the Tampa Bay area faced either a direct hit or, at minimum, would be at risk for tornadoes, flash-flooding, and sustained high winds. Schools closed both allowing families and employees to prepare for the storm and to be used as storm shelters for evacuees.
Our family, along with most of the rest of the state, had only two days to collect hurricane supplies such as bottled water, flashlights, batteries, and nonperishable foods. Additionally, to also make sure we had a month’s worth of prescription medication, install hurricane shutters, collect sandbags, empty the fridge of items that could spoil, do laundry in expectation of power loss, and hit gas station after gas station to fill cars.
While my youngest daughter, my son, and I were stocking up on what little supplies were left at a local Wal-Mart, my son saw a Halloween costume of one of his favorite video game characters, Bendy from Bendy and Ink Machine. He asked if I would get it for him for Halloween, to which I agreed. Later, you’ll see how Bendy becomes an integral element in our family’s hurricane story.
Fortunately, my oldest daughter and her husband live further inland, so we hit the road not knowing what we’d come home to. She has three dogs and was currently fostering another. My youngest daughter and her girlfriend, along with their dog and two cats, also joined us. So that’s seven people, five dogs, two cats, and a partridge in a pear tree. Then we wait.
It was about twelve to twenty-four hours before the winds started ripping through her community. My son was already in full overload due to the amount of people and pets in one space. To monitor deteriorating conditions and tornadic activity, most of the adults were glued to the television. Then when the power went out, to our phones.
But Barclay found a way to cope. Bendy. When he started to get overwhelmed, he put on the Bendy costume. Being someone else helped him escape the chaos of barking dogs, howling winds, and a dark house.
In the storm’s aftermath, a loud generator chugged and hardly kept the fridge going. Debris filled the yard. Downed power lines meant no one could leave. The adults and pets were hungry, dirty, and grumpy. But Bendy—he weathered the storm like a champ.
Eventually, we got word that the power was back on at our place. We left, and the exhausted crew followed. Thankfully, our home was spared, so many Floridians weren’t that lucky. When we got home, the house was eerily dark from the hurricane shutters, and it took a few days to get them down. But by Sunday, my daughters’ both had power and left. Most of our small world was back to normal, and we even were able to take a ride on our boat and have lunch at a favorite waterside spot.
Today, Monday, he was able to return to school. Most mornings, he’s groggy and not too eager to get out of his comfy pajamas and into khakis and a polo, but not this morning. It was like the first day of school all over again. He said, “I’m going back to school, and I get to see my teacher and my friends!”
So while so much of experiencing this hurricane with my autistic son was overwhelming for us all, there were definitely some silver linings.
- Time with family. Yes, it was A LOT having us all under one roof. But my son loves his family so much, and even though we were all distracted, everyone did their best to make him feel our presence.
- Experience. Since we live near the Florida coast, this will likely happen again in his lifetime. He will at least now have the prior knowledge to hopefully know that as a family, we will make decisions to keep everyone safe.
- Life Skills. My son used his new Bendy costume as a tool to remain calm in the middle of a storm. Poor Bendy’s stitching is fraying at the neck, and the velcro in the back has lost its grip, but that was the best twenty dollars I’ve ever spent.
Thank you, Bendy, for helping my son escape into your world, so he could cope with his.
In a final note, to all my fellow Floridians whose lives were shattered by Hurricane Ian, our thoughts and prayers remain with you as you face the challenges ahead.