Positive Triggers


little girl drawing with chalk positive triggers

If you haven’t seen our SNEP introductory video about how Special Needs Emergency Preparedness got started, I highly recommend checking it out. You would have heard the story Joshua shares about visiting a family with a mother, a daughter and an adult autistic son.  The family rented the upstairs of a house not knowing that the downstairs was being rented by the criminal element. During his visit with the family there was a police raid at the house and the police ordered everyone out. The autistic man seeing police in their full gear with chaos happening all around him had a meltdown and started shouting back at the police all kinds of profanities which only made the situation more hostile. While Joshua was trying to tell the police that the man has special needs and wasn’t aware of the magnitude of the situation, the mother ran inside the house and grabbed an orange to give to her son. Once her son had the orange he immediately calmed down enough to be gently led with his family to a police car. The mother later told Joshua that if her son sees a bag or oranges in the house he’ll eat them all because he absolutely loves them.

A positive trigger is something, someone, a group or activity that a person has an inexplicable deep connection and attachment towards. We all have these triggers but for someone with special needs, autism in particular, these triggers are deeply ingrained and bring them a profound sense of comfort. How can you tell if a special needs individual has a positive trigger, as these triggers can be used in emergency situations?

Here are some key points to look out for and consider:

  1. Is the trigger a drop everything you’re doing and pursue that one thing?
  2. Is the person to some degree fixated on the trigger in a way that blocks everything happening around them?
  3. Positive triggers may already be integrated into a special needs persons schedule as a way to relax such as watching their favorite movies or set up as a reward. If you know the special needs person very well and are with them on a regular basis, it may be easy to overlook since you’re used to it being a part of your lives.

Is this trigger on a daily basis something they absolutely can’t live without?

A special needs child or adult is likely to have many positive triggers to varying degrees so don’t feel discouraged like you’re searching for the holy grail. It can take getting to know someone in your care very intimately before you find potential positive triggers.

Now you might be asking, why are positive triggers so important? Just like how the mother instantly calmed her adult son down during a police raid, the fixation a special needs person has on their positie trigger can be a valuable asset to family members, first responders, and caregivers. The fixation a special needs person has on their trigger is so strong that they can tune out their external environment and like a laser beam focus on that one thing. This allows you to lead a special needs person to safety while helping them tune out anxious events and calamity happening around them as well as . Positive triggers have also been used to find missing persons with autism after they’ve wandered away from a safe environment as in the story of Joshua Robb, an 8-year old boy with autism who wandered away from school. Search and Rescue was able to draw out the boy after playing recordings of his dad's voice and his favorite Ozzy Osbourne songs. More on that story can be found in the news article here and the video below.



A negative trigger is something, someone, a group or activity that a person has developed an excessive fear towards. They may also have an overwhelming and often irrational hatred towards the trigger, like the adult son we were talking about towards the police, probably because of his impressions from television watching. They will do anything to be as far away as possible from this kind of perceived negative influence real or perceived, or lash out towards it. A tell tale sign of a negative trigger is that there’s no grey area or neutral feelings. The person's emotions are very cut and dry.

Positive triggers can also adapt and change as a special needs person grows so it’s a good idea to periodically check any vulnerable persons registries and school forms if you have positive and negative triggers listed so that they can be updated on a regular basis.

Many babies and small children without special needs can also have positive and negative triggers to varying degrees that they may outgrow overtime. A good example of positive and negative triggers in action comes from my little sister when she was about 1 years old. At that age she was obsessed with keys, especially daddy’s keys. Despite my nine year old self trying to warn her about potential germs on the keys, the child had lazar focus on keys if they were dangling in front of her and would chew on them to her heart's content. We tried to give her those plastic toy keys but they were not a good substitute, she wanted the real thing. As a kid in the backseat with all my siblings in the minivan, I learned to use this to my advantage. My little sister also hated driving in the car for any length of time after a bad road trip experience from British Columbia to Ontario and back and would cry until she vomited, and then would cry again. If we had to drive anywhere we would distract her by shaking keys above her head. She would immediately calm down and we could drive in relative peace without crying and vomit all over the place. She’s in her 20’s now and unfortunately it’s been years since shaking keys in front of her extinguished all her problems. We’ll maybe if they came with a car.

sister staring at keys + positive trigger

My little sister in her car seat fixated on dad's keys

While positive triggers are not a magical wand that you can use to control someone with special needs, their positive triggers are magic. When you take the time to get to know someone with special needs and learn what their positive triggers are, you might see the magic in them too.

Author: Giada Crosbie

Read more about Giada and the SNEP team here.


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