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Understanding And Addressing Situational Challenges


Editor’s note: While disasters and emergencies push all of us out of our comfort zones, some folks have greater challenges than most of us in dealing with the new and changing status quo when this happens. This article discusses some options for helping people with neuro-diversities adapt to or endure threats, such as survival situations.


For the last five years, my core focus has been on supporting individuals with special needs and other neuro-diversities to adapt to difficult situations. Individuals with autism, or autistic individuals, and those with Down syndrome might have difficulties adapting to the unforeseen or out-of-the-ordinary circumstances that survival situations bring.

I can’t speak about all those with particular needs, but the way that popular therapies have conditioned those affected makes it difficult for independent thought and planning when the situation deviates from the norm.

If you have a plan put in place and are prepared for a given eventuality, your focus can be put to more pressing needs instead of rushing to prepare.

How We All Adapt

The “OODA loop” is a well-known acronym for assessing a situation and reacting to it. It represents a progression of behavior that everyone processes in the same manner and is the basis of my suggestions on preparation. The cycle of Observe, Orient, Decide and Act is the process of decision-making outlined by U. S. Air Force Colonel (Ret.) John Boyd. His theory is simple and basically states that every human being makes decisions in this routine manner. Since the theory was first introduced by Boyd, many militaries, police forces and businesses have implemented this process in their training and marketing strategies—with wonderful success.

Mindfulness techniques help discover how people care for themselves. It doesn’t matter how things are perceived—it’ll always be positive or negative.

Our routines and habits follow this process. Individuals learn and adapt by analyzing experiences and deciding what should be done when encountering those trials in the future. Every person’s routine and habits are derived from this as a part of growing older. When someone’s habitual action appears to be out of the ordinary, there’s always an experience that elicited the OODA loop process and set the standard reaction. In these cases, an individual hasn’t decided on an action in that moment but has conditioned a generic response.

It’s Not Always So Simple

When it comes to neurological variances in individuals, some actions might not follow the OODA loop pattern. Fronto-striatal dysfunction is one such example of a neurological condition that can affect the overall decision-making process. While it’s much more nuanced than can be described here, there are many ways to assist with adapting with this difficulty, including medications.

When someone is left with no options and can no longer avoid a negative circumstance, panic will set in and be exhibited externally through some type of reaction.

When disaster strikes or there’s a rapid shift in routine, everyone has to restructure their learned behaviors. A change in routine is one of the most common factors that induce stress in any individual. If you add in the complications due to a neurological condition, the stress could seem considerably worse.

Schedule and Practice

A schedule is one of the main things that help keep an established routine intact. However, just because a routine exists doesn’t mean it needs to be the same every single time.

Take, for example, a jog. While the activity is set for a particular time, modifying the route every day or week will add changes that require some type of adaptation.

Martial arts are an exceptional example of routine used to adapt to quickly changing circumstances. Many will train in a particular martial style or weapon. But when it comes to real-life situations, an opponent’s movements are never exactly the same as during training, so adaptation is required. This is a prime example of utilizing a routine to overcome unexpected situations.

Neurology is composed of many different components (more than are pictured), but they work together to form different areas of consciousness.

In the military, there are repetitive routines. When I began training for survival, a military friend advised me to empty and refill my bug-out bag before, during and after each trip or day. His theory was simple: If I knew where every item in my bag was without needing to think or search for it, my focus could remain on any evolving, unregulated situations.

The physical requirements are the easy thing to plan for. Clothes, food and transportation are all essential needs for every human being.

Outside of our material needs, mental and neurological requirements are the most overlooked type of preparation for those with special needs.

Deficiencies in certain parts of neurological development will affect overall neurological function in some way.

Unplanned Changes

In many ways, a physical disability will restrict the options we can use to react to changing situations. Neurological conditions will also make it difficult to remember previous events or predict impending events. This is where there’s a struggle with the special needs community when it comes to planning ahead. When I say, “special needs,” I mean to include diseases that’ll affect bodily and cognitive function. Visual impairment, Parkinson’s and even diabetes can affect an individual’s ability to act and respond to current situations.

Many individuals with autism also have difficulty with unplanned changes. Everyone can relate to having periods of stress when things change unexpectedly. Small alterations, such as a closed road, might seem astronomically important for the neuro-diverse. It’s a change in the routine, and more time is required to orient and decide their following action. When any individual is incapable of orienting themselves to a situation, fear or panic begins to set in, and that can lead to emotional and physical breakdowns. It might seem like making a mountain out of an anthill to most people, especially those who’ve prepared for the possibility of stressful situations occurring. However, the reality is that an individual who enters this emotional state is experiencing a subjective reality, and their response shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Urban areas provide a large array of convenient options for the special needs community, but they also present challenges regarding disaster preparation and constantly changing circumstances.

In many cases, those with physical or neurological disabilities can compensate in unique ways. This impairment might allow them to adapt more easily, depending on the situation.

How to Cope… Neurologically-ish

Sometimes, the best way to support an individual during traumatic times is to help them comprehend what they need to accomplish.

I caution everyone to avoid underestimating anyone’s ability to understand certain situations and circumstances. Lacking a process of acclimating to changing situations is something that everyone can experience. Every person has gotten to some point in their life when they didn’t know what to do. Setting up a routine for those particular times can play a role in preventing unnecessary stress.

Uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations/areas are often encountered and are necessary to traverse. It’s important to set plans in place for unexpected encounters in order to avoid unnecessary danger.

Humans perceive a given situation in three possible ways: It’s something that will happen (future event); something that is happening (current event); and something that has already happened (past event). In this way, we learn from our past and prepare for our future in the present moment.

The future is difficult to prepare for, because it’s purely speculative and hypothetical. Humanity takes previous experiences and applies them to potential future events. Our actions in unexpected encounters or disasters rely completely on what we’ve already done. So, to avoid panic and fear, plan for the eventuality of the unknown by setting up a scenario, and act accordingly. 

How can we plan for the unknown? Simple—with routine. The unknown will be categorized as “new and exciting things” (optimistic) or “unexpected and fearful things” (pessimistic). Clearly, impending events are preceded by the present moment.

For example, if someone knows they‘ll be hungry, they prepare food before they become famished. In a similar way, if they prepare food before experiencing hunger, they might unexpectedly become hungry and will have already planned for that eventuality. In essence: If you’re future-focused, you can prevent unnecessary stress.

The future moment anticipated and the past witnessed comprise our “Observe” in the OODA loop. From that moment in present time, we orient ourselves accordingly, decide what we’ll do—based on our future perceptions and what we’ve learned in the past—and then do it. What’s interesting about this is our ability to become preemptive. Humanity is unique in the ability to become preemptive when it’s not instinctive.

Routine vs. Subjugation

I might sound overly critical regarding popular therapies. Most therapies rely on a consistent form of routine and dependence.

Routine is essential, but it shouldn’t incapacitate people. ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy is one such form of an incapacitating routine. While it’s also more nuanced, subjects forced to receive ABA therapy are provided with extremely strict parameters they must follow. If anything falls outside of those parameters, it’s an “unknown” and can result in panicked behavior because it “shouldn’t” exist.

Instructor Ryan Kennedy assists the author to help these children develop skills for blind-rolling and preemptive movement.

ABA makes it incredibly difficult for people to plan for the future, because they rely heavily on input and guidance from an external source (i.e., their therapist). For those who have significant cognitive disabilities, ABA might be an effective form of therapy; however, a number of people who’ve undergone this therapy would say it’s a form of abuse.


Just as small changes in eating habits can lead to a wider palate, small changes in awareness can lead to adaptability to unforeseen circumstances. Practicing the OODA loop and an awareness of personal mindfulness give one the tools to prepare for adaptability. Focusing on the positive side of mindfulness will also bring about positive adaptability and a different outlook, instead of fear and avoidance, regarding potential future events. The future can be seen as a “goal” and not a “problem,” even if it contains a major difficulty.

Training should be modified and remain diverse. Repeating the same actions won’t challenge or improve any preexisting difficulties.

Sometimes, helping someone means putting them in uncomfortable situations to put lessons into practice. When change is infrequent, it becomes scary. No one likes to be uncomfortable, but often, that’s the best way to learn. Someone who thinks they can let the gas gauge get low and then runs out of gas is unlikely to consciously make the same mistake again. Ultimately, their future goal is to always have gas in the car instead of fearing the car is going to stall.

Add Small Elements of Change for Adaptability

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you go to a grocery store in search of ice cream. You find that your favorite ice cream is sold out. At this moment, there’s an observed reality, and a decision must be made about what to do next: Purchase another brand? Maybe get another flavor from the same brand? Perhaps you’ll just skip ice cream altogether and go to the gym.

The martial arts prove to be useful training tools for those with physical and neurological development challenges. The complex movements force the entire body to work as a whole simultaneously.

No matter what the final outcome is, some type of unforeseen event has happened. If this modified decision hadn’t been reached, it could have been easy to get emotionally frustrated.

So, there are two ways to approach situations such as this to help adaptability in change. The first is to have multiple options. If there’s no “X,” then you’ll get “Y.”

The second is to completely omit an option: “‘X’ isn’t available, so I’ll have to get ‘Y.’” This can be applied to any decision at any time or in any environment.

Planning ahead for a potential event isn’t uncommon. Without the recognition of the possibility and creation of a plan, encountering the event can cause stress in an individual and result in opposition and aggression toward a “surprise” solution.

Soldiers often pack and repack their bags. Knowing what items you have and where they are lets you focus your attention on new and developing situations.

Scheduled Unpredictability

Change is hard for anyone. A disaster always comprises a series of unforeseen and unsettling events. It’s never as planned previously, and adaptability is key to success. When we look at how we make decisions and realize there are reasons for our behavior and motivation, we can completely adapt to those changes with minimal stress.

Likewise, we can help those who are uncomfortable with change by making the process of decision-making more routine. They say the brain is a muscle, and practicing with it makes us mentally strong. Our brain is also a nerve, and it needs to be stimulated in order for us to experience mental advancement.

Simple things such as a detour can set some special needs children into an anxiety ridden tantrum, while others might be just fine.

Having continual training and development that practice “expect the unexpected” are essential for developing patience and understanding. Communication and understanding remain instrumental aspects of adapting to new, unique situations. We can support others to develop these skills and, often, it’s as simple as establishing a routine of “scheduled unpredictability” in order to practice the OODA loop.

Expect the Unexpected 

There are many effective ways to prepare for the unexpected. When it comes to being prepared, “expect the unexpected” is absolutely a must—especially when it involves those who experience challenges adapting to rapidly changing circumstances.

Martial arts have long been a form of preparing people for unexpected situations and planning for various outcomes. The right instructor challenges the student. And, with constructive criticism and motivation, they also help their student grow in crucial ways. Within this training, there’s also preparation of the body for unique movement by building strength and stamina for continued and precise movement when necessary. However, what nearly all “therapies” tend to overlook is the unknown—and this is where martial arts truly shine.

For neuro-diverse individuals, it takes a specialized kind of instructor to best assist.

Some instructors might overlook some of the telltale signs of stress and rising emotional burdens. Moving rapidly to an easy-to-observe curriculum will allow for improved adaptability. Unfortunately, most forms of traditional martial arts training are too rigid for the special needs community. It requires unique skills to modify accordingly, swiftly and rapidly to assist the neuro-diverse.

Reality Is Subjective

Reality is based completely on personal experience. Our bodies are just imperfect tools used to analyze the world around us. What I see as “blue” might appear as “purple” to others. Because of this, it’s challenging to completely and identically comprehend what any person experiences, and we can only perceive potential parallels. Reality is a series of hallucinations based on the information our brain processes. The difference from other hallucinations is that we agree on what reality’s hallucinations are.

Because of this subjective nature of reality, those with cognitive or neurological differences might experience situations differently than neuro-typical individuals.

The same applies to children, as compared to adults. The world looks completely unique to the young because, to them, it is. I remember as a child dismantling a pen and pretending it was a submarine with different missiles and rockets. As an adult, I can hardly fathom how I could have been so creative or imagined that potential reality!

Autistic individuals most likely experience a reality different from others. Likewise, it would be difficult for a person with perfect eyesight to imagine the actuality of experiencing the world while being completely blind. Every physical or cognitive disability means that their reality will be uniquely subjective.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.